Reports that record numbers of young people are graduating from high school, attending college, and earning four-year degrees still leave nagging questions about education quality, the millions of mostly poor children attending substandard schools, unacceptably high college dropout rates, growing student debt, and how America stacks up to its global competitors.
Many countries now do a better job of getting young people to enter college and complete their degrees. More than 40 percent of U.S. students who start college, planning to earn a four-year degree, still haven’t finished after six years. Completion rates are even worse for community college students. And a majority of college presidents say public high school students arrive at college less prepared than students a decade ago.
But whether or not young Americans are better educated today, they are earning more degrees, partly because they and their parents see increasing value in higher education, especially in tough economic times.
In 1978, the public was evenly divided over whether young people needed a college education to get ahead. Today, the vast majority of Americans understand that they do. That’s real progress, and a trend politicians can build on when shaping the policies and priorities of the next four years.
Indeed, America’s growing support for education might be the best news to come out of a new Pew Research Center report, based on recently released Census data, that showed a record 33 percent of the nation’s 25-to-29-year-olds earning at least a bachelor’s degree. That’s up from 28 percent in 2006 and 17 percent in 1971. Another record share — 63 percent — has completed at least some college.
High school graduation rates among young adults also rose, to 90 percent in 2012, up from 86 percent in 1979. In 2012, a record 76 percent of foreign-born young adults had completed at least a high school education, up from 71 percent last year.
Numerous opinion polls suggest Americans increasingly regard higher education as necessary, as high-paying, low-skill manufacturing jobs virtually disappear and the gap between what noncollege workers and college graduates earn continues to grow.
Workers with four-year degrees earn, on average, nearly twice as much as high school graduates. The earnings gap will continue to grow in a knowledge-based economy.
Four-year colleges must balance their traditional mission to provide broad, intellectually stimulating curricula with the increasingly technical demands of the labor market. Some of the attention on four-year colleges must be refocused on accessible two-year community colleges that can train people for most of the emerging good-paying jobs.
Good news on college graduation rates among young people does not mitigate any of these challenges; rather, they make meeting them even more necessary. The steady increase in U.S. degree holders also does not match similar increases in some European countries.
Nevertheless, the U.S. public has gotten the message about the importance of education. With increasing public support, politicians and policy makers must now ensure that Americans have an education system that meets their growing needs and expectations.