Adult Learner Demand

Educational Attainment: Setting the Record Straight

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Community college is “where America really goes to college,” said Dr. Gail Mellow, President of LaGuardia Community College, in her keynote at Eduventures Summit 2019.

Another “invisible reality”: the power of higher education for adults. While widely-cited, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data might have you believe that there has been zero educational attainment gain in the U.S. in 30 years: this interpretation is wrong.

We want to challenge this myth.

Falling Behind in Educational Attainment?

Let’s go back to the root data from nearly a decade ago: 2010.

The assertion that U.S. educational attainment has stalled was stimulated by the OECD’s 2012 edition of its Education at a Glance report, a compendium of education statistics globally. The OECD is a club of mostly rich countries. The table in question (see below) showed tertiary educational attainment by country across four age groups. “Tertiary education” is the OECD’s term for credential attainment after high school, spanning undergraduate certificates to graduate degrees. In America, we call it “postsecondary” or “higher education.”

According to the OECD, the U.S. tertiary educational attainment percentage in 2010—in the low 40s across all age ranges— was above average, but flat over time. Whereas, the mean across all OECD countries was lower, but up strongly. Generally speaking, outside of the U.S., the younger the age group, the higher the educational attainment. For 55-64 year-olds, the attainment gap between the U.S. and the OECD average was 18 percentage points, but just four percentage points for 25-34 year-olds.

Population that has attained tertiary education (2010) - Eduventures Wake-Up CallSource: OECD, Education at a Glance (2012), page 36, Table A1.3a.

What did this mean? Was America about to give up its storied lead over the rest of the world when it came to education?

“This is the most important lesson to be taken from the international data” the Lumina Foundation concluded in its analysis of the OECD figures. “Most of the world has responded to the global demand for post-secondary skills by increasing attainment, and the U.S. has not.”

Hold on a minute.

The argument that the educational attainment of 25-34 year-olds is the “same” as 55-64 year-olds makes a traditional and outmoded assumption: that higher education is only for 20-somethings. The “U.S. educational attainment has stalled” assertion implies that the 55-64 year-olds of 2010 all earned their higher education credentials back in the 1970s when they were of traditional college age. This is not what actually happened.

Steaming Ahead

To untangle the true story, Figure 2 tracks two trends and updates the 2010 OECD data:

  • Trend 1: The teal bars track the tertiary (post-secondary) attainment of different groups of people when they were 25-34 years old over the past 30 years. That is to say, it tracks the attainment of people in America who were 25-34 years old in 1987, then those who were that age in 1997, in 2007, and in 2017.
  • Trend 2: The blue bars track the tertiary attainment of the same group of people—those aged 25-34 in 1987—and what happened to the attainment of those same people up to the present.

So, Trend 1 tracks the same age group; Trend 2 tracks the same people. Of course, in 1987, the same age group was the same people.

Educational Attainment Still Growing - Eduventures Wake-Up CallFigure 1.

Figure 1 shows that U.S. tertiary attainment did anything but stall. Successive cohorts aged 25-34 are more educated than their predecessors. More than half the 25-34 year-olds of 2017 had already attained a tertiary credential, much higher than their peers back in 1987, only 33.6% of whom had done the same.

The reason the “stalled” argument took hold is because toward the end of the last decade—when the OECD published its widely-cited chart—Trend 1 (age groups) and Trend 2 (people) converged (44.9% and 43.8% attainment, respectively). But this was due to a strength, not a weakness, of U.S. higher education. The people aged 25-34 in 1987 did not turn their back on school. In fact, this group increased their tertiary attainments by nearly 13 percentage points over the next 30 years.

How? Because the U.S.—more than in most other countries—encompasses numerous institutions and programs that are adult-friendly. Trend 2 (people) shows the power of higher education for adults. Back in 1987, only a third of 25-34 year-olds had attained a tertiary credential. By 2007, 46% of this same cohort had done so by going back part-time, studying online, or both studying and working full-time.

The good news for the U.S. is that in 2017, 52% of 25-34-year-olds had already attained a tertiary credential. This percentage is now pulling well ahead of that of people aged 55-64. And with the number and variety of colleges and universities serving adult learners today, the future looks bright. Through adult-oriented higher education, today’s 25-34 year-olds will likely emerge even more educated in the decades to come.

The Bottom Line

It was a mistake for the OECD to compare the attainment of 25-34 and 55-64 year-olds in the same year. The better comparison is the same age group at different points in time. In the case of the U.S., this shows a remarkable increase in educational attainment. The additional Trend 1 (age group) momentum between 2007 and 2017 is particularly notable; the fruit of socio-economic change, initiatives by the states and by the Lumina Foundation, and student support efforts by countless institutions have all contributed to the momentum.

Is American higher education problem-free? Of course not. Is educational attainment still dogged by racial and other disparities? No question. Are other countries catching or surpassing the U.S. when it comes to tertiary education attainment? Yes.

But let’s not add to our challenges with a false narrative about stagnation. American higher education is more diverse and adult-friendly than any other in the world; and Americans, of all ages, seek out higher education in ever greater proportions.

We call on the OECD to revise how it presents educational attainment data, to enable the most meaningful comparisons.

Gail Mellow is right to celebrate community colleges as where “America really goes to college.” For the same reason, we should also celebrate the innumerable adult programs, continuing and professional education divisions, online colleges, and, indeed, community colleges, that make the U.S. a world leader in higher education.

Thursday, July 18, 2019 at 2PM ET/1PM CT

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