Young adults are earning college degrees at a record rate. Why?

More adults might be completing college degrees because it’s been so hard for young people to find jobs during difficult economic times. But the rise is also part of a historical trend.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A student blows bubbles as she marches into her commencement ceremony. Students from the College of Arts, Sciences and Engineering at the University of Rochester graduate at the Eastman Quadrangle in the rain in Rochester, N.Y., in May 2011. More young people than ever are attending college.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

The portion of young adults in the United States who have completed a four-year college degree hit a record high in 2012. A full third of 25-to-29-year-olds now hold degrees.

Ninety percent have completed high school or an equivalent credential, and 63 percent have done some college course work – both peak rates as well.

Progress in “educational attainment ... has a lot of implications, both for the wealth and well-being of the young adults themselves ... and [for] the productivity of the workforce and future economic growth,” says Richard Fry, a senior research associate at the Pew Research Center and coauthor of its new report on the subject.

For years, the idea has been growing that college is as necessary as high school was 40 years ago. In 2010, 75 percent of Americans said college was very important, compared with just 36 percent in 1978, the report notes.

President Obama has set a goal for the US to lead the world by 2020 in the percentage of young people earning college degrees or postsecondary certificates.

The increases in the Pew report indicate a “rather slow climb” that would need to accelerate to meet the president’s goal, says Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The rate of young adults earning a bachelor’s degree – 33 percent – is up five percentage points since 2006, perhaps in part because it’s been so hard for young people to find jobs during difficult economic times.

But the rise is also part of a historical trend. Back in 1971, only 17 percent of young adults had attained four-year degrees.

The recent upward trend in college degrees includes nearly all racial and ethnic groups. While white and Asian young adults still have the highest level of college completion, at 40 percent and 60 percent respectively, the rate has risen to 23 percent among blacks and 15 percent among Hispanics. Those are record highs for all groups except Asians, who are slightly below their 2004 rate.

Young immigrants also are at a high point – 28 percent having earned a college degree.

Even higher percentages of young adults are completing at least some college: 58 percent of men, 59 percent of blacks, 41 percent of Hispanics, and 47 percent of immigrants, for instance – all record highs.

For years, higher-education observers have been raising concerns that as more of the population is made up of young minorities, their historically lower level of education would pull down the country’s overall average.

These new data show that “the changing demographics has not yet had the dampening effect,” Mr. Fry says, and college enrollments among minorities suggest that new peaks in attainment levels may still come.

“This report could be seen as the silver lining of the Great Recession – a positive finding in an assessment of education that’s often very critical these days,” he says.

During better economic times, education attainment rates have been more stagnant. It’s possible, Fry says, that rates will tick downward somewhat as the labor market improves.

One important category that’s not shown in the Pew report is the rate of college attainment for low-income Americans, Professor Goldrick-Rab says. Their rate compared with that of wealthier Americans shows “the largest disparity, and [this gap] is at the greatest size we’ve ever seen,” she says. “If we want to move the dial here, we have to do something serious about the costs [of college].”

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