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Educational Progress Stalls in California

Sarah Bohn, Hans Johnson May 24, 2017

California is known as an engine of economic growth and innovation in the United States and across the world. A highly educated workforce has long gone hand in hand with the state’s robust economy.

California’s historically strong commitment to higher education—providing low-cost access to public colleges and universities at a time of rapid population growth—led to a large increase in college enrollment and completion. Baby boomers who were of prime college age during the 1960s and 1970s benefited from that expansion. Today, those boomers are the best-educated adults of that generation in the developed world. Older working-age adults (age 55–64) in California are more likely to have a bachelor’s degree than in any of the 32 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Is California’s younger generation keeping up with other countries?

Unfortunately, generational progress in college completion has nearly stalled in California. Although more California high schoolers are completing their diploma today than 30 years ago, the share that subsequently earns a bachelor’s degree has not changed much: 33% of those age 25–34 in California today have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 31% of those age 55–64. Other countries have made much stronger progress. Indeed, the share of college attainment among young adults in California ranks 22nd of the 32 OECD countries, and the state’s generational progress is dead last.

The lack of generational progress in California is a cause for concern. College attainment not only benefits individuals’ earnings and employment prospects but also contributes to California’s economy by attracting businesses and keeping the state competitive in an increasingly globalized marketplace. Increasing the share of high school graduates eligible for the state’s public universities could help improve educational attainment among California’s young adults.

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