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“A TIPPING POINT IN EDUCATION”: Report Finds Educational Attainment of Younger Generations Has Not Increased

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“One of the core tenets of the American dream is the hope that younger generations, who’ve had greater opportunities for educational advancement than their parents and grandparents, will be better off than the generations before them, yet this report shows that aspiration is at serious risk.”
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A new report from the American Council on Education (ACE) finds that, for the first time, the educational attainment of younger generations is not higher than that of the generations that preceded them. According to the report, Minorities in Higher Education 2008 Twenty-third Status Report, 35 percent of young adults aged twenty-five to twenty-nine had at least an associate’s degree in 2006—the same percentage as adults aged thirty or older.

“It appears that we are at a tipping point in our nation’s history,” said ACE President Molly Corbett Broad. “One of the core tenets of the American dream is the hope that younger generations, who’ve had greater opportunities for educational advancement than their parents and grandparents, will be better off than the generations before them, yet this report shows that aspiration is at serious risk.”

The report finds that Asian Americans and whites were the only two groups in which educational attainment improved from one generation to the next. Those increases in attainment rates, combined with no improvement for African Americans and decreases for American Indians and Hispanics, result in a widening of the attainment gap, which, as shown in the chart below, has grown quite pronounced.

In a conference call with reporters, Mikyung Ryu, assistant director of ACE’s Center for Policy Analysis and author of the report, broke down the results by generation, further demonstrating the decline. According to Ryu, 37 percent of the Baby Boom generation (individuals aged 45–64) has attained at least an associate’s degree, compared to 39 percent of the first part of Generation X (individuals aged 30–44). However, only 35 percent of the second part of Generation X (individuals aged 25–29) has attained at least an associate’s degree.

According to the report, total minority enrollment at the nation’s colleges and universities grew by 50 percent, from 3.4 million to 5 million, between 1995 and 2005. The increase in Hispanic enrollment, which grew by 66 percent to more than 1.7 million students, led all racial groups. African American enrollment grew by 46 percent, followed by Asian Americans (37 percent) and American Indians (31 percent). Enrollment among white students grew by 8 percent, from 9.9 million to 10.7 million.

Even with these increases in minority enrollments, a significant enrollment gap remains between races. According to the report, 61 percent of Asian Americans aged eighteen to twenty-four were enrolled in college in 2006, compared to 44 percent of whites, 32 percent of African Americans, and 25 percent of Hispanics and American Indians. During the conference call, Broad attributed the gaps in enrollment to higher high school dropout rates for minorities.

As Ryu explained later in the conference call, completing high school is an important step in qualifying for college. Unfortunately, she added, high school graduation rates for all racial groups have remained flat for the last twenty years and completion gaps remain large. The good news is that a larger percentage of students who do finish high school are enrolling in college. On average, she said, 40 percent of students who complete high school are attending college, compared to 27 percent twenty years ago. The bad news is that racial gaps have widened during that time. But overall, the combination of improved college enrollment and population growth has contributed to record-high numbers of minorities attending college.

The report also identifies what Broad referred to as a “boy problem” during the conference call. As she explained, only 36 percent of young men were enrolled in college in 2006, compared to 44 percent of young women. Other than Asian Americans, young men in every racial group, including whites, are worse off than previous generations when it comes to educational attainment. For women, the pattern is reversed for all races except for American Indians, with the current generation of women outperforming past generations in educational attainment.

When asked how the generational decline in educational attainment could be reversed, Broad identified high school graduation rates as the “most significant point of inflection that we would want to change.” She said that improving high school graduation rates has been “stubbornly difficult to accomplish” but added that high school graduation significantly improves the chances that a student will go on to postsecondary education.

More information on the report is available at http://tinyurl.com/45rwlc.

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