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Education - Trends In Years Of Schooling

age differences percent adults gap college

The education gap between younger and older adults in the United States is closing. For example, the gap in median years of education for those age twenty-five to thirty-four and those fifty-five and over shrank from 4.4 years in 1947 to 0.2 years in 1991 (see Figure 1). The improvement for older adults came rapidly during the 1960s and 1970s, reflecting the growth of public education in the first decades of the twentieth century. More than half of the young adults in the United States had completed twelve years of education by 1952, while it was 1979 before half of the older adults had achieved this level. The gap between men and women in median years of education has nearly disappeared for all age groups, especially for young adults.

Until the 1930s, a typical childhood pattern of education involved completing the sixth grade and then going to work. Many Americans never attended high school. Since 1940, rates of finishing school before high school graduation have decreased while rates of graduating high school (or higher levels of education) have increased. Until the late 1950s it was uncommon for middle-aged people to have completed high school. Since 1990, rising college enrollment has led to a drop in the percentage of adults who only graduate from high school. The percentage of young adults who finished their schooling with high school declined from 44 percent in 1973 to about 31 percent in 2000, but has remained steady in the 1990s for older adults. At the turn of the twenty-first century similar proportions of young adults had completed their schooling with some college (28 percent) or had completed a college degree (29 percent). Older adults will reflect this trend of increasing educational attainment by the middle of the twenty-first century.

A 70-year-old woman celebrates with her son (left) and grandson as she becomes the oldest graduate at Austin College in 1997. (Photo by Delia DeWald. Used with permission of Janet Huber Lowry.)

The statistic of median years of schooling hides a lot of variation in educational attainment among racial and ethnic groups. Wide differences remain, and gender differences linger among older persons in various racial and ethnic groups. The gap is closing for high school completion rates, and gender differences barely exist at this level. High school graduation rates for whites remained above 80 percent in the 1990s, while rates for blacks stayed above 70 percent after 1993. Although 1980 census figures showed two-thirds of Hispanics completing high school, from 1990 to 2000 the rates remained below 60 percent, reflecting the recent immigrant status of many Hispanics. Asian and Pacific Islander men have the highest levels—up to 88 percent completed high school in the 1990s—and women in this category hovered around 80 percent.

Similar trends in college degree completion show differences between the genders in racial and ethnic groups. The gender gap is most extreme for older adults (see Figure 2). Asian and Pacific Islanders have the highest level of college degree completion among U.S. groups, with men around 32 percent and women above 15 percent. For other older men, whites have a college degree completion rate of 23.2 percent, while Hispanics are at 9.3 percent and blacks are at 7.5 percent. For other older women, the frequency of college completion is: whites, 12 percent; blacks, 8.3 percent; and Hispanics, 5.3 percent.

Although 30 percent of older adults (compared to 10 percent of younger adults) in the United States still lack a high school degree, the education gap is shrinking rapidly. A gap persists at the higher-education level due to an expansion of opportunities since the mid-twentieth century, and minor regional differences persist. High school completion levels for those age twenty-five and over were highest for the Midwest (87 percent) and lowest for the South (82 percent). When baby boomers reach retirement, the education gap will begin to close. Older people in Europe and Japan are generally not as educated as their counterparts in the United States.

Differences remain for members of minority groups in the United States, but these are not uniform. Non-Hispanic blacks have a lower level of educational attainment by all measures, though the rate for black women exceeds that of black men. Asians have the highest education rates, while Hispanics are often the least educated at all ages, despite both these groups having A foster grandparent volunteers at an elementary school. (Photo by Teresa Wegener.) recent immigrant status. These cultures are more patriarchal and strongly favor the education of men. Elizabeth Vierck reports that, in the United States, one in ten people over age sixty-five speaks a foreign language at home. Gender differences for older adults persist in Asian and non-Hispanic whites, although they appear to be fading. In the developing world, however, education levels among older women are generally low or nonexistent.

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