Data released by the Pew Research Center shows that, contrary to the impression that the American education system is sputtering, the percentage of young adults between the ages of 25 and 29 who have attained at least a college degree has grown over the last decade to more than 30%. The number is the highest it has ever been since Pew began analyzing census data.
More impressive is the fact that the growth occurred amid population upheavals, mostly due to immigration, that have drastically redefined the face of the American populace. Prior to the release of the Pew analysis, education and social experts were widely predicting that due to the demographic changes, the next set of educational attainment data was going to show a decline, rather than an uptick.
There was no decline. According to the Pew report, educational attainment is now at a record high for almost all demographic groups, including men, women, blacks, Hispanics, native-born Americans as well as those who were born abroad. Furthermore, the percentage of young people who have at least graduated high school also grew, to a impressive 90%. And yet another record was set when the analysis revealed that fully 63% of 25-25 year olds have attended college.
Some of the "credit" for recent increases appears to go to the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and the sluggish jobs 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.
Richard Fry and Kim Parker, writing for Pew Social Trends, say that the growth is a reflection of the societal attitude that holds college to be very important and key to a successful economic future. As late as 1978, fully half of Americans polled by Pew believed that college was not necessary for future success. In 2009, only three decades later, the percentage of the population that believed that a college education was required was up to 78%.
The trends on college attainment are not all positive, however. The recent increases in the U.S. come at a time when other advanced economies are registering similar or greater gains, leading experts and college presidents to question whether the U.S. has been losing its competitive position as the global leader in higher education. In 2011 the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of more than 1,000 college presidents nationwide. Among those college presidents surveyed, only 19% said the U.S. system of higher education is currently the best in the world, and just 7% said they believe it will be the best in the world 10 years from now. A plurality of presidents (51%) described the U.S. system as one of the best in the world.
Higher education leaders, like college presidents, have also expressed concern about the personal characteristics of current college students, like their lack of willingness to apply themselves, and the fact that they usually haven't learned and adopted good study habits over the course of their academic careers prior to college. More than half of those polled believed that college students today don't apply themselves nearly as much as their predecessors of ten years ago did.