Undergraduate Degree Completion by Age 25 to 29 for Those Who Enter College 1947 to 2002

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1 Undergraduate Degree Completion by Age 25 to 29 for Those Who Enter College 1947 to 2002 About half of those who start higher education have completed a bachelor's degree by the ages of 25 to 29 years. This is nearly a constant in higher education: For the last 50 years the share of 25 to 29 year olds with at least some college that has completed at least four years of college has fluctuated within a narrow range of 48 to 54 percent. College completion is difficult to measure over many decades because definitions of who has started college and who has completed college were changed by the Census Bureau in the early 1990s. Nevertheless these data suggest that some modest improvement in baccalaureate degree completion by ages 25 to 29 years has occurred since the 1950s. Moreover additional progress may have occurred during the 1990s. Of course these trends and patterns vary widely across different groups of the population. Only about 29 percent of Hispanics who start college will have completed a bachelor's degree by age 25 to 29 years, compared to about 70 percent of Asian/Pacific Islanders. This pattern reverses for associate degrees. By ages 25 to 29 years about 8 percent of Asian/Pacific Islanders will have completed an associate degree, compared to nearly 20 percent of Hispanics. Women appear to be making greater gains in bachelor's degree completion rates than are men over the last decade. These and other significant findings of college completion by age 25 to 29 years for those who enter college are gleaned from our examination of Census Bureau reports on educational attainment dating back to The Data Sources. For various years between 1940 and 1962, and each year since 1964, the Census Bureau has gathered and reported data on the educational attainment of people in the United States. These data describe the amount of education held by people classified by age, gender, race/ethnicity, geographic location and other useful ways of describing people. Most of the data on educational attainment have been gathered in the March Supplement to the monthly Current Population Survey. The CPS is a monthly survey of about 50,000 households mainly designed to gather data on employment and unemployment of the civilian, noninstitutional population of the United States. An October supplement gathers important data on school enrollment. The March supplement gathers data on educational attainment and other important population descriptions such as income. In addition to the March Current Population Survey supplement, detailed data on educational attainment are gathered in the decennial census of the population. Both the CPS and decennial census data on educational attainment are available on the Census Bureau's website at: Postsecondary Education OPPORTUNITY Page 1

2 Definitions. There are actually two distinct sets of data reported by the Census Bureau measuring educational attainment. The first data are those reported through 1991 based on one set of definitions, and the second set are those reported since 1992 based on a second set of definitions. Through 1991 the Census Bureau measured educational attainment in terms of years of school completed. Completing four years of college has been treated in this analysis as graduating from college with a bachelor's degree. In addition, the Census Bureau only counted those who had completed at least a full year of college as having enrolled in college. Anyone who did not complete a full year of college was not counted as having begun college. Beginning in 1992 the Census Bureau began reporting CPS data on educational attainment in terms of highest degree completed. In part because students are taking longer to complete degrees this now more accurately measures the educational attainment expectation of employers and others who use college credentials. Beginning in 1992 the Census Bureau also began counting those who started college but left before completing a full year as having some college. Reviewing these two different definitions we judge the current definitions more useful to the study of college completion. And for our purposes the second change--counting all who start college-- reduces somewhat the measured college completion rates reported in this analysis for the years 1992 through The pre-1992 data present a somewhat inflated picture of college completion rates in the U.S. between 1947 and Age. For years the Census Bureau has used the 25 to 29 age group as a useful reference for looking at degree attainment. (Other age groups are used for other purposes.) We use the same age group knowing that some people may be still completing their bachelor's degree in this age range and others will complete their degree later in life. Our analysis of the 2002 data across age levels suggests that the proportion of the cohort having completed a bachelor's degrees is very close to its peak for this cohort. College Completion Rates In March of 2002 there were 18,310,000 people ages 25 to 29 years old in the civilian, noninstitutional population of the U.S. Of these 10,623,000 had at least some college enrollment experience. Of those with college experience 5,372,000 or 50.6 percent had completed a bachelor's degree or more. Another 1,505,000 or 14.2 percent of those with some college experience had completed an associate's degree, either occupational or academic. These are the college completion rates for the bachelor's and associate's degrees for The chart on page 1 of this issue of OPPORTUNITY shows the share of the gender and each distinct racial/ethnic groups' bachelor's degree completion rates for By gender females had slightly greater bachelor's degree completion rates at 51.7 percent than did males at 49.3 percent. Asian/Pacific Islanders had by far the highest bachelor's degree completion rates at 69.7 percent. White non-hispanics had the second highest rate at 54.6 percent. Black non-hispanics had a far lower bachelor's degree completion rate at 33.8 percent. Hispanics had the lowest bachelor's degree completion rate at 28.8 percent. Postsecondary Education OPPORTUNITY Page 2

3 The chart on this page shows the proportion of 25 to 29 year olds holding associate degrees, either occupational or academic. Associate degree completion rates varied again by gender and race/ethnicity: 14.6 percent of females ages 25 to 29 held associate degrees, compared to 13.7 percent of males. Hispanics were most likely to have earned associate degrees (19.5 percent), and Asian/PIs were least likely (7.6 percent). When bachelor and associate degree completion rates are combined a picture of significant success in higher education emerges. For 25 to 29 year olds that have started higher education 64.8 percent have a college degree to show for their efforts. By gender 66.3 percent of women and 63.0 percent of men have a college degree. By racial/ethnic categories degree completion rates were 77.3 percent for Asians, 68.6 percent for white non-hispanics, 48.6 percent for black non-hispanics and 48.3 percent for Hispanics. Age Why ages 25 to 29 for measuring bachelor's degree completion? The Census Bureau has adopted this as a convention for measuring recently achieved educational attainment, as in: socdemo/education/taba-2.pdf But as the chart on page 4 makes clear, the proportion of the population starting college and completing at least a bachelor's degree does not increase appreciably among older age cohorts. It remains in the 50 to 54 percent range through age 65 to 69 years. Trends The second chart on this page shows bachelor's degree completion rates between 1947 and Two distinct plots are shown because of the distinct definitions employed by the Census Bureau: years of school completed from 1947 to 1991, and highest degree completed from 1992 through Under the old Census Bureau definition four year college completion rates remained quite stable at around 50 percent between 1952 and Under the new definition the bachelor's degree completion rate is somewhat lower, between 45 and 50 percent, but appears to be increasing between 1994 and Over this very long period of time the picture that emerges is one of great stability in bachelor's degree completion. About half of those who start college complete a bachelor's degree. This is just as true today as it was a half century ago. Overall there is very little or no trend upward or downward to these data. This finding of stability clashes sharply with other Census Bureau data on bachelor's degree attainment (not completion) for 25 to 29 year olds. Attainment measures the share of the population with a bachelor's degree. Completion measures the share of those who start college with a bachelor's degree. Postsecondary Education OPPORTUNITY Page 3

4 The chart on the next page shows the proportion of the U.S. population age 25 to 29 with a bachelor's degree or more. This is the attainment rate. It has increased from about 5.9 percent in 1940 to 29.3 percent by With the exception of disruptions caused by World War II in the late 1940s and the Vietnam War during the 1970s, growth in the share of the 25 to 29 year old population with a bachelor's degree or more has been steady and substantial. This growth in bachelor's degree attainment contrasts sharply with the lack of growth in bachelor's degree completion. Between 1952 and 2002 the bachelor's degree completion rate increased from 50.2 to 50.6 percent, or by 0.4 percentage points. Between 1952 and 2002 the bachelor's degree attainment rate increased from 10.1 to 29.3 percent, or by 19.2 percentage points. Clearly the gains in bachelor's degree attainment rates have occurred prior to college, namely in increased high school graduation rates and/or college continuation rates for high school graduates. Probably both. These rates may not necessarily move together, but their cumulative effect-- measured in college participation rates--has been relentlessly upward over the last five decades. The gains in bachelor's degree attainment rates have not been produced within higher education. Higher education completion rates have been flat for 50 years. Colleges and universities have certainly produced many more bachelor's degrees over the last 50 years. But these gains are entirely attributable to gains in numbers and rates of high school graduation and college continuation, not college completion. Our colleges and universities continue to graduate the students they admit at the same rate they did 50 years ago. There has been no progress within higher education in five decades. Undergraduate Degree Completion Using the most recent definitions of college enrollment and graduation employed by the Census Bureau since 1992 we can study recent trends and patterns in undergraduate degree completion rates. These data now span eleven years, and updates our previous analysis of these data reported in the December 2000 issue of OPPORTUNITY. As shown in the chart on the following page bachelor's degree completion rates for 25 to 29 year olds have ranged between 44.7 percent in 1994 to 50.6 percent in Clearly bachelor's degree completion rates increased during most of the 1990s. These 25 to 29 year olds began their college careers about a decade earlier, between 1982 and Associate degree completion rates have ranged between 13.5 percent in 1992 and 1997, and 15.7 percent in Between 1992 and 2002 this rate has increased from 13.5 to 14.2 percent. Both bachelor's and associate's degree completion rates have increased during the last decade. Thus, between 1992 and 2002 the undergraduate degree completion rate increased from 61.8 to 64.8 percent among 25 to 29 year olds. Postsecondary Education OPPORTUNITY Page 4

5 Gender. The two charts on page 7 show undergraduate degree completion rates for males and females age 25 to 29 years for the period 1992 through Over this brief period the charts are quite similar, although on more careful inspection familiar differences emerge. First by ages 25 to 29 years larger shares of females than males held both associate and bachelor's degrees from college in This was also true in However: Between 1992 and 2002 the share of males holding associate degrees increased while the share of females holding associate degrees decreased. Between 1992 and 2002 the share of 25 to 29 year old males holding bachelor's degrees increased by 1.2 percent, while the share of females holding this degree increased by 3.1 percentage points. In 1992 men between the ages to 25 and 29 years were 49.8 percent of the civilian, noninstitutional population and held 49.3 percent of the bachelor's degrees. Women were 50.2 percent of this population and held 50.7 percent of the bachelor's degrees. By 2002 men were 50.0 percent of this age cohort but held 45.7 percent of the bachelor's degrees. Women were also 50.0 percent of this cohort, but held 54.3 percent of the bachelor's degrees. Looking back five decades at the span from 1952 to 2002 these numbers are even more dramatic. In 1952 men were 47.3 percent of the civilian noninstitutional population of 25 to 29 year olds, but held 64.7 percent of the bachelor's degrees. Women were 52.7 percent of this cohort but held just 35.3 percent of the bachelor's degrees. These gender trends have been frequently reported in these pages of OPPORTUNITY over the last eight years. They are nothing new. But they are highly significant. They reflect not just the feminization of higher education enrollments but also the same for the college-educated workforce in future years. Race/Ethnicity In addition to the gender disaggregation of these data the Census Bureau has reported data describing the undergraduate degree completion of the four major racial/ ethnic groups of the population for the years 1992 through These groups are: white non-hispanics, black non- Hispanics, Hispanics and Asian/Pacific Islanders. Our analysis here focuses on the 25 to 29 year old age group. The first of these charts for white non-hispanics is the first chart on page 8 of this issue of OPPORTUNITY. By age 25 to 29 years 54.6 percent of those who had started college had completed a bachelor's degree and another 14 percent had completed an associate's degree. More than two out of three non-hispanic whites who had started college had a college degree to show for their efforts by the time they were 25 to 29. Between 1992 and 2002 the share of non-hispanic whites ages 25 to 29 years who had started college and completed bachelor's degrees increased from 51.0 to 54.6 percent. The bachelor's degree completion rate increased substantially between 1994 and 2002, from 47.5 to 54.6 percent. Postsecondary Education OPPORTUNITY Page 5

6 Similarly the share of those who had started college that held an associate's degree increased from 13.3 to 14.0 percent, although this trend has been generally downward since White non-hispanics represent 61.5 percent of the civilian noninstitutional population of 25 to 29 year olds in They also represent 69.7 percent of this age group that has at least some college education experience. And they represent 75.2 percent of 25 to 29 year olds with bachelor's degrees or more from higher education. However non-hispanic whites represent a shrinking share of the population of 25 to 29 year olds. In just a decade earlier--non-hispanic whites represented 72.3 percent of the population of 25 to 29 year olds, 77.9 percent of those with any college experience, and 82.2 percent of 25 to 29 year olds with at least a bachelor's degree from higher education. Clearly the market population is less non-hispanic white, as are college enrollments and college graduates. The demographic changes are natural, occurring continuously, and indicate different futures for higher education enrollments and college-educated workforces, voters and parents. The second chart on this page shows undergraduate degree completion rates for non-hispanic blacks ages 25 to 29 years from 1992 through In 2002 the proportion of these blacks with any college that completed at least a bachelor's degree from college was 33.8 percent. Another 14.8 percent had completed associate's degrees in Between 1992 and 2002 the bachelor's degree completion rate for non-hispanic blacks increased from 31.1 to 33.8 percent, an increase of 2.7 percentage points. At the same time the associate's degree completion rate declined, from 17.0 to 14.8 percent, a decline of 2.2 percentage points. Apparently an increasing share of black college students are successfully pursuing bachelor's degrees over associate's degrees from higher education. In 2002 black non-hispanics represented 12.6 percent of the 25 to 29 year old population, 11.6 percent of those with any college experience, and 7.7 percent of those with a bachelor's degree or more from college. In 1992 blacks were 13.2 percent of the population of 25 to 29 years olds, 9.6 percent of those with any college experience, and 6.5 percent of those with a bachelor's degree or more from higher education. Thus over this ten year period blacks ages 25 to 29 represented a shrinking share of the population of 25 to 29 year olds. However blacks represented a growing share of those with any college experience and a growing share of those holding at least bachelor's degrees from higher education. The decade between 1992 and 2002 was a period of relative growth in higher education participation and graduation for blacks. Asian/Pacific Islanders have the highest undergraduate degree completion rates of any racial/ethnic group. In percent of those 25 to 29 years old with any college experience held either a bachelor's or associate's degree from higher education. The bachelor's degree completion rate was 69.7 percent and the associate's degree completion rate was 7.6 percent. Between 1992 and 2002 the bachelor's degree completion rate among 25 to 29 year old Asian/Pacific Islanders increased sharply, from 57.1 to 69.7 percent, or by 12.6 percentage points. Postsecondary Education OPPORTUNITY Page 6

7 During the same time the associate degree completion rate edged downward, from 8.3 to 7.5 percent, or by 0.8 percentage points. In 2002 Asian/Pacific Islanders comprised 5.8 percent of the population of 25 to 29 year olds, 7.9 percent of those with any college enrollment experience, and 10.9 percent of those with bachelor's degrees or more from higher education. Clearly Asian/Pacific Islanders are especially successful in their pursuit of college degrees. In 2002 Hispanics have the lowest bachelor's degree completion rate among 25 to 29 year olds, and the highest associate degree completion rate. The bachelor's degree completion rate was 28.8 percent, and the associate's degree completion rate was 19.5 percent. Between 1992 and 2002 the bachelor's degree completion rate for Hispanics ages 25 to 29 years declined from 33.2 to 28.8 percent, a decline of 4.4 percentage points. Hispanics were the only racial/ethnic group where the bachelor's degree completion rate declined over this ten year period. The associate degree completion rate increased from 15.3 to 19.5 percent, and increase of 4.2 percentage points. This was the largest for any group, and the associate degree completion rates for both blacks and Asian/Pacific Islanders decreased during this period. In 2002 Hispanics were 19.3 percent of the country's population of 25 to 29 year olds, 10.3 percent of those with any college enrollment experience, and had earned 5.8 percent of the bachelor's degrees. Ten years earlier in 1992 Hispanics were 10.6 percent of the 25 to 29 year old population, 6.1 percent of those with any higher education enrollment experience and had earned 4.4 percent of the bachelor's degrees. Clearly Hispanics are growing very rapidly as a share of the 25 to 29 year old population, but also making very slow progress in gaining baccalaureate-level higher education over the last decade. Equity Indices Another way of showing the meaning of these data is through equity indices. These indices are simply the ratio of bachelor's degree completion rates for each population group to the bachelor's degree completion rate for the population for each year of the time series. These indices provide a directly comparable measure of the completion rate for any population group to the population mean. For example for white non-hispanics in 2002 the ratio of the bachelor's degree completion rate of 54.6 percent to the rate for the population of 50.6 percent is The white non-hispanic's bachelor's degree completion rate is percent of the rate for the population. The indices report predictable results: Asian/Pacific Islanders' equity index has risen from in 1991 to by White non-hispanics' equity index increased from to Females' equity index increased from to between 1992 and Males' equity index has declined from 99.6 to Black non-hispanics have relatively low equity indices but rates are rising from 64.4 to Postsecondary Education OPPORTUNITY Page 7

8 Hispanics are clearly having increasing difficulty completing bachelor's degrees from higher education. Their equity index has fallen from 68.7 in 1992 to 56.9 by This decline is partially offset by gains in associate degree completion during this period. These data describe an overall quite stable bachelor's degree completion for those who enter college over the last five decades. The gains in attainment by age 25 to 29 are attributable entirely to gains in high school graduation and college continuation for high school graduates--not to any gain in bachelor's degree completion within higher education. But these overall data obscure important redistribution of bachelor's degree completion within higher education: from men to women, and from Hispanics and blacks to Asians and whites. Postsecondary Education OPPORTUNITY Page 8

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