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Falling Behind

October 9, 2008

The latest generation of adults in the United States may be the first since World War II, and possibly before that, not to attain higher levels of education than the previous generations. While white and Asian American young people are outpacing previous generations, the gaps for other minority groups are large enough that the current generation is, on average, heading toward being less educated than its predecessor.

These data are among the most dramatic in "Minorities in Higher Education 2008," which is being released today by the American Council on Education as the 23rd annual status report on the diversification of American colleges and universities.

Most of the data in the report are not themselves new, and come from the various reports issued over the year by the U.S. Education Department and other government and private sources. The educational attainment data, for example, are from census figures. But the report groups various statistics together in ways that are designed to promote a fuller understanding of the way demographics are changing -- or not.

"We are at a tipping point in our nation's history," said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the ACE, in reference to these findings. She said that "the alarm bells should be going off" all over the country over this analysis, given the historic pattern of successive generations outperforming one another.

Educational Attainment: Percentage of Adults With Associate Degree or Higher, 2006

Group Ages 25-29 Ages 30 and Up
Total 34.9% 34.3%
White 41.2% 37.3%
Black 23.8% 24.1%
Latino 16.0% 17.8%
Asian American 66.2% 54.1%
American Indians 17.7% 21.2%

Broad noted that the data also point to a growing gender gap in educational attainment, which is consistent with all of the reports about gender gaps in enrollments. For black and Latino women, for example, the most recent generation outperformed the prior ones, but the opposite is true for men. And across racial and ethnic groups, women are achieving a higher level of education than men.

Percentage of People Aged 25-29 With At Least An Associate Degree, 2006, by Race and Gender

Group Men Women
White 36% 46%
Black 20% 28%
Latino 13% 20%
Asian American 63% 69%
American Indians 16% 20%

For much of the report, evidence of some progress alternates with evidence of stagnation. Some of the other figures:

  • Total minority enrollment increased by 50 percent, to 5 million students, between 1995 and 2005. White enrollment increased by 8 percent, to 10.7 million.
  • Following those enrollment trends, minority students make up about 29 percent of all students.
  • Enrollment gains have been uneven. In 2006, 61 percent of Asian Americans aged 18 to 24 were enrolled in college compared with 44 percent of whites, 32 percent of African Americans, and 25 percent of Hispanics and American Indians respectively.
  • In a key indicator that black enrollments may not be about to boom, the high school completion rate has remained relatively flat over the last two decades, at around 76 percent. (By comparison, the rate for Asian Americans is 91 percent.)
  • The increase in Hispanic enrollment led all racial/ethnic groups, up by 66 percent to more than 1.7 million students. Hispanic enrollment grew faster at four-year institutions than at two-year institutions.
  • Asian-American enrollment increased to more than 1 million over the 10-year period between 1995 and 2005, up 37 percent.

 

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