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Young Adults Set Records for High-School, College Degrees, Pew Research Center Says

Friday, December 21, 2012
Record shares of young adults ages 25 to 29 in 2012 have completed a high-school education and obtained a four-year college degree, in part as a result of the weak job market during and since the recent recession, according to a study released Nov. 5 by the Pew Research Center.

College completion rates have risen to record levels among key demographic groups, including men, women, blacks, whites, Hispanics, immigrants, and native-born Americans, Richard Fry, a senior economist, and Kim Parker, the center's associate director, said in the report, Record Shares of Young Adults Have Finished Both High School and College.

Overall, 33.5 percent of young adults now have a bachelor's degree, up from 32.2 percent in 2011 and from 28.4 percent as recently as 2006, they said, based on an analysis of Census Bureau data. In addition, the share who have completed a high-school education rose to 89.7 percent in 2012 from 89.0 percent the prior year, and those who have completed at least some college education rose to about 63 percent from 62 percent.

All three levels of educational attainment in 2012 were record highs for young adults.

“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,” they said.


Economy Plays Role
Economic factors explain part of the recent gains, which occurred during the 2007-2009 recession and the sluggish jobs recovery since then, the authors said.

“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,” Fry and Parker said.

In addition, growing public awareness “about the importance of going to college to succeed in an increasingly knowledge-based labor market may also have played a role,” they said.

With a record high 42 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college in 2011, the share of young adults who have attained at least some college education is expected to continue to rise over the near term.


Men's College Completion Rebounds
In 2012, the shares of men and women ages 25 to 29 who have a bachelor's degree rose to 30 percent and 37 percent, respectively, according to the report.

The increase among men from 28 percent in 2011 ended at least temporarily a long period of relative stagnation in their college completion rate, following an increase in the mid-1970s to 28 percent, the study said.

Young women's college completion rate, by contrast, has grown steadily since 1972, when it was 20 percent.

Young blacks and Hispanics are much less likely than whites to have a bachelor's degree, but their college attainment also reached new highs in 2012 of 23 percent and 15 percent, respectively.

College completion among young Asians remained far above that of other groups in 2012, at 60 percent, but was below its peak of 61 percent in 2004.

The increases among minorities suggest that growth in their share of the young adult population is not inhibiting an overall increase in educational attainment, Fry and Parker said.

Some scholars have projected that U.S. educational attainment would reach a plateau or decline because of the growing proportion of minorities, who have lower levels of college completion. This prediction has not materialized in part because minorities have boosted their educational attainment, the report said.


Recent Immigrants More Educated
In 2012, college completion rates among young adults also set record highs among both immigrants (28 percent) and native-born Americans (35 percent), the study found.

Some of the increase in the educational attainment of foreign-born residents ages 25 to 29 may reflect a shift in source countries, Fry and Parker said. Asian immigrants, who tend to have higher levels of education, recently have outnumbered Hispanic immigrants.

The recent increase in college completion rates has reversed the so-called “education reversal” between older and younger generations of Americans that arose in the past decade, the authors said. In 2007, 29.9 percent of adults ages 45 to 64 had a bachelor's degree, compared with 29.6 percent of 25- to 29-year-olds, but in 2012, 33.5 percent of young adults were college graduates compared with 30.9 percent of 45- to 64-year-olds.

Making such comparisons between different age groups “does not make sense,” however, Fry and Parker said. Since education levels tend to rise as a group ages, trends in educational attainment are better ascertained by comparing the same age group at different points in time, as their report does, they said.


Modest Gains in High-School Education
Recent increases in the proportion of young adults completing high school have been modest but also have produced records, according to the study.

The approximately 90 percent high-school completion rate in 2012 marked an incremental gain from 86 percent in 1979, it said.

Young men's high-school completion rate rose to 88 percent this year from 87 percent in 2011, while women's rate held steady at 91 percent.

Hispanic high-school attainment increased significantly from the previous record of 71 percent in 2011 to 75 percent this year, while the rates for blacks and Asians rose by 1 percentage point to 89 percent and 96 percent, respectively.

Immigrant high-school attainment in 2012 reached 76 percent, up from 71 percent the prior year, while that of native-born young adults held steady at 93 percent.


Text of the report is available at /uploadedFiles/Content/News/Legal_and_Business/Bloomberg_Law/Legal_Reports/PEW_educ_attain_report_2012(1).pdf.

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