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A Generational Challenge for Higher Education

Hans Johnson July 7, 2016

Generational progress in educational attainment has long been a critical component of societal improvements in well-being and economic mobility. For many decades in California and the United States, the expectation has been that children will eventually attain a higher level of education than their parents. And for many decades, that is exactly what occurred.

In recent years, however, generational progress has stalled. The share of Californians ages 25–34 with at least a bachelor’s degree (33%) is only very slightly higher than the share of bachelor’s-degree holders among the 55–64 age group (31%). Compared to countries that are part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an international organization of 34 member countries that provides data on economic and education trends, California ranks 1st in the share of older adults holding at least a bachelor’s degree (or equivalent), but only 22nd among younger adults.

Unlike almost all OECD countries, California has seen very little generational progress (2 percentage points). In stark contrast, Korea, Poland, and Ireland witnessed gains of 23 or more percentage points in the share of bachelor’s-degree holders among younger adults, relative to older adults. Because educational attainment is the single most important determinant of employment and wages, this lack of progress has implications not only for individuals but also for the state’s economy.

Not all states share California’s lack of progress. Among the 30 largest states, California ranks 21st in generational gains. New York, Iowa, and Illinois have all seen some of the largest improvements (10 to 12 percentage points) in the share of bachelor’s-degree holders among younger adults, compared to older adults. In Massachusetts (not shown), half of all young adults have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 40% of older adults.

A few states, including Arizona, Colorado, and Oklahoma, actually saw generational regress, meaning older adults are more highly educated than younger adults. Despite the lack of generational progress, Colorado still has a relatively high share of young adults (37%) with at least a bachelor’s degree.

What is most worrisome for California is that the lack of generational progress is coupled with a relatively low share (33%) of young adults with college degrees. Connecticut (not shown) has not seen much generational progress either, but even so, over 40% of young adults in that state have a college degree.

These differences in generational progress (or lack thereof) are not necessarily attributable to differences in education systems across states. For example, in Colorado, many highly educated older adults have migrated to the state from elsewhere.

The tremendous challenge facing California and the key to improving economic well-being in the state is to increase educational attainment among young adults. PPIC has identified key strategies to do this:

  • Improve access to four-year colleges.
  • Increase transfers from community colleges to four-year colleges.
  • Raise graduation rates for those already in college.

By taking steps now, the state and higher education leaders can put California back on the path of strong generational progress.

Chart source: OECD and American Community Survey.
Figure notes: Charts display select countries or states, including those with the highest and lowest generational gains.

Learn more

Read Higher Education in California: Addressing California’s Skills Gap
Visit the PPIC Higher Education Center

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