Americans Are More Educated Than Ever — But It’s Still Not Enough

There’s both good news and bad news about educational levels in the United States.  The good news is that we’re more educated than ever, according to a recently released Pew report. In 2012 high school completion for adults 25 and older reached 88 percent in 2012, some college or more reached 57 percent, and a four year college degree or more reached 31 percent — all historic highs:

It’s amazing to note that back in 1971 only 12 percent of those 25 and older had a four year degree and just 57 percent had graduated from high school. Perhaps even more encouraging is the data on the youngest cohort of this group, 25-29 year olds.  Their college completion rate, after flattening out in the late 1990’s and first half of the 2000’s, has climbed recently to an historic high of 33 percent:

The bad news is that we’re still not as educated as we should be, given the demands of today’s increasingly skill-driven economy.  As a recent study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce suggests, today’s 74 percent premium for a college education over high school (that is, how much more an average college graduate earns than an average high school graduate) is too high, both because it signals that today’s economy is demanding more college graduates and because of it contributes to wage inequality. They recommend instead a Bachelor’s degree wage premium level of around 46 percent.

This reduction in the college wage premium can be obtained if we increase the supply of college educated workers by around 20 million over the next 15 years (right now, we’re on track to add only about 8 million).  Such an increase in the college educated workforce would take a big bite out of inequality, rolling back about a quarter of the increase in inequality we’ve seen since 1979.

This can be done, but it will necessitate a much more aggressive approach than we currently have to bringing down college costs and making sure everyone who wants to has adequate resources to pursue a college degree.  This is particularly the case for black and Latino youth who still lag substantially behind whites and Asians in their college completion rates:

If we can narrow this gap, we will go far in remedying our current undersupply of college-educated workers.