Falling Education Attainment

May 10, 2010

WASHINGTON – Young adults are less likely to have earned a degree than their older counterparts, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution that gathers nearly a decade’s worth of data from the government's American Community Survey and foreshadows next year’s release of the 2010 Census.

Though the percent of adults with a baccalaureate degree rose from 24 to 28 from 2000 to 2008, a smaller percentage of 25-to-34 year-olds than 35-to-44 year-olds held one in 2008. The reverse was true in 2000.

Disparities of Education Attainment by Age in U.S. Adults

Age HS diploma or more in 2000 HS diploma or more in 2008 Some college in 2000 Some college in 2008 Associate degree in 2000 Associate degree in 2008 Bachelor's degree in 2000 Bachelor's degree in 2008
25 to 34 83.9 86.4 23.1 23.5 7.5 8.3 27.5 29.6
35 to 44 85.0 87.3 22.6 21.4 8.1 8.7 25.9 30.8
45 to 64 83.2 87.6 21.7 21.9 6.4 8.2 26.4 28.9
65 and over 65.5 75.7 15.7 17.5 2.5 3.9 15.4 20.0

The Brookings report focuses primarily on demographic trends in the country’s 100 largest metropolitan areas. As these areas contain two-thirds of the nation’s people and generate three-fourths of its gross domestic product, the report’s authors argue that they are “bellwethers for how the nation is changing and how policymakers should respond.”

For instance, among these top 100 metropolitan areas, the educational attainment gap continues to grow larger. In 2008, 34 percentage points separated the top- and bottom-ranked cities in terms of baccalaureate degree attainment. This gap is 26 percentage points higher than it was in 1990.

Top and Bottom Ten Cities in U.S. by Proportion of Adults Age 25 and Over with a Baccalaureate Degree

Rank in 2008 Rank in 2000 Metro area Percent with degree in 2008
1 1 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 46.8
2 2 Bridgeport, CT 43.8
3 4 San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA 43.5
4 3 San Francisco-Oakland-Freemont, CA 43.4
5 7 Boston-Cambridge, MA-HA 41.9
6 8 Raleigh, NC 41.5
7 5 Madison, WI 39.8
8 6 Austin, TX 38.2
9 11 Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN-WI 37.6
10 9 Denver-Aurora, CO 37.5
... ... ... ...
91 94 Scranton, PA 21.0
92 91 El Paso, TX 19.6
93 97 Youngstown, OH-PA 19.1
94 92 Riverside-San Bernardina-Ontario, CA 19.0
95 87 Fresno, CA 18.9
96 99 Lakeland, FL 18.7
97 96 Stockton, CA 15.6
98 100 McAllen, TX 15.1
99 98 Modesto, CA 15.1
100 95 Bakersfield, CA 14.7

Significant gaps also remain for baccalaureate attainment among different races and ethnicities. In every large metro area in the country, attainment for whites exceeds that of both blacks and Latinos. Looking at these 100 areas as a whole, 36 percent of white residents hold baccalaureates, while 19 percent of black residents and 14 percent of Latino residents do. There are certain areas of the country, however, where these minorities perform better.

“College degree-earning rates among blacks are relatively high in several of the high-tech metro areas that perform well overall, with Atlanta posting the second-highest rate for blacks,” the report notes. “Also ranking high are a handful of Western metro areas, including Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Portland, where the his­tory of racial segregation is not quite as severe as in the East. Metro areas with the highest edu­cational levels for Latinos, by contrast, lie largely east of the Mississippi, and include Midwestern (St. Louis, Columbus, Minneapolis), Northeastern (Baltimore, Rochester, Boston), and Southern (Miami, Jacksonville, New Orleans) locations. With a couple exceptions, these metropolitan areas tend to have relatively small Latino populations.”

An increasing number of young adults enrolled in college in the past decade. In 2008, 41 percent of 18-to-24 year-olds were enrolled at a college. This is up from 24 percent in 2000. Among the top 100 metropolitan areas, 91 saw a similar increase.

“Metropolitan areas throughout New England and upstate New York all had more than half of their young adults enrolled in 2008,” the report notes. “Gains over the decade were par­ticularly rapid in a number of older industrial metro areas in the Great Lakes region, including Toledo, Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis, where enrollment rates were up 10 percentage points or more. It may be that the loss of manufacturing jobs over the course of the decade, many of which had not required a bachelor’s degree, spurred more young people in these regions to pursue higher education. Whether they will stay in these regions to pursue job opportunities after earning degrees remains to be seen."

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