In 2012, a record 33 percent of the nation’s twenty-five- to twenty-nine-year-olds completed at least a bachelor’s degree, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of newly available data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Overall, 31 percent of the U.S. population over age twenty-five holds a bachelor’s degree or more, according to the report, Record Shares of Young Adults Have Finished Both High School and College.
As recently as 2006, only 28 percent of young people had obtained a bachelor’s degree. In 1971, the first year included in the report, only 17 percent earned a bachelor’s degree.
Similar records were posted in the percentages of twenty-five- to twenty-nine-year-olds with a high school diploma (90 percent)1 and “some college or more” (63 percent), as shown in the graph above.
“These across-the-board increases have occurred despite dramatic immigration-driven changes in the racial and ethnic composition of college-age young adults, a trend that had led some experts to expect a decline in educational attainment,” the report notes. Instead, college completion has reached record high levels for African Americans (23 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree), whites (40 percent), and Hispanics (15 percent),2 even as the nation’s college-age population is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse—today 44 percent of eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds are nonwhite, up from 17 percent in 1971, the report finds.
The report attributes the rise in educational attainment to the growing importance the American public places on a college education, as well as to the “Great Recession” that occurred from 2007 to 2009 and the sluggish job recovery since. “With young adults facing sharply diminished labor market opportunities, their rate of high school and college completion has been rising slowly but steadily since 2007, after having been stagnant during better economic times earlier in the decade,” the report notes.
According to the report, the educational attainment of today’s young adults is outpacing young adults from earlier generations—a finding that flies in the face of analysts who have argued for an “education reversal,” in which older Americans are more educated than younger Americans.
“To judge how well the U.S. education system is performing, it does not make sense to compare older Americans to younger Americans,” the report argues. “The basic problem is that the education levels of any particular age group change as they age. Trends in educational attainment are better gauged by comparing older Americans when they were the same age as younger Americans to today’s younger Americans.”
The report contains some bad news for the United States, however; it notes that other advanced economies are registering similar or even greater gains in college attainment than the United States. Additionally, college presidents and other experts are questioning whether the United States is losing its position as the global leader in higher education. According to a 2011 Pew Research Center survey of 1,000 college presidents nationwide, only 19 percent said the U.S. system of higher education is currently the best in the world.3
The complete report is available at http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2012/11/educ_attain_report_FNL.pdf.
1 The report includes individuals who obtained an equivalency degree, such as a General Education Development (GED) credential in its calculations.
2 Sixty percent of Asians completed at least a bachelor’s degree, which is far above the other groups but below the record 61 percent that the group posted in 2004.
3 According to the 2011 report, 40 percent of presidents of highly selective colleges or universities say that the U.S. system of higher education is the best in the world, compared with 22 percent of heads of institutions of medium selectivity and 14 percent of heads of institutions of lower selectivity.