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The State of Young America: Higher Education

Part two of a five-part series

Once the unquestioned leader in educational attainment, today our nation is only 9th in the world. Among 25- to 34-year-olds, we are even further behind, coming in 12th place for the percentage of young people with at least an associate’s degree or higher.  As mentioned in the previous post, earnings have dropped considerably for workers with no further education beyond high school, and though more than half (55%) of 18- to 24-year-olds believe that getting education or training is most important to succeed in today’s economy, and more young adults enroll in college today than before, college completion rates are lagging.

The second chapter of SOYA on higher education delves into the specific barriers that impede young Americans from attaining a postsecondary degree, and ultimately the credentials they need to thrive in the 21st century economy. Financial barriers are a primary factor, including issues with rising tuition, limited financial aid, increasing student loan debt and increasing hours spent working.  On a more positive note, young women’s college enrollment and completion rates are rising steadily – a complete reversal of the gender gap from 1980.  In 2011, 37% of young women had at least a bachelor’s degree compared to 29% of young men.  Here are a few more important statistics taken from the report and poll:

  • Among full-time students seeking a bachelor’s degree at public universities in 2008, the national graduation rate within six years of enrolling was 55%, while among full-time associates degree students, the completion rate was just 28%.
  • Average tuition at public 4-year colleges was $7,600 in the 2010 academic year, up from $2,100 in 1980.
  • To finance their education, two-thirds of young community college students work more than 20 hours per week. Nearly half (46%) of 4-year college students work more than 20 hours a week.
  • 84% of young adults say that making a college education more affordable should be a priority of Congress.
  • 88% of young adults support increasing financial aid and making loans more affordable for college and post-high school education and training.
  • Today, two out of three students graduate with student debt, up from one out of three in 1992. The average student graduates with over $24,000 in student loan debt.

Clearly, our access to higher education is not secure, even as the need for education beyond high school shows no sign of slowing in the American economy where “middle-skill” jobs that pay well require an associate’s degree or certificate.  Tuition rates continue to rise, and for the first time in U.S. history, the amount of all student loan debt today is greater than the amount of credit card debt owed. Many hardworking students are now being priced out of pursuing and completing their higher education, and those who do enroll are leaving college with unprecedented levels of debt, often without a degree in hand. In order for young people to achieve the necessary credentials to compete in this economy, these cost, access, and completion hurdles must be addressed.

To read the full report, click here. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on SOYA’s findings on young people’s access to health care and coverage.