BCGD: Big College Graduation Deal

A few quick comments on the new report on college graduation by Pew researchers Richard Fry and Kim Parker, which estimates 33% bachelor’s degree completion among non-institutionalized 25- through 29-year-olds (HT: NYT’s Tamar Lewin):

  • The increase in college graduation (from 28-29% before the recession to 33% now) is a noticeable boost, both for the pace of increase and also the fact that college graduation has nudged at all after more than a decade of stagnation. To paraphrase Joe Biden, this is a big deal.
  • Some of the increase may be temporary, for two reasons. Fry and Parker correctly observe that at least some of the increase is because of the Lesser Depression, as people out of work returned to school (or, as the anonymous Dean Dad put it in 2009, “it’s raining men”). Enrollment may decline as we get further from the depths of the crisis. In addition, it is possible that part of the increase may have been people shifting their college education earlier rather than an increase in the proportion with a college degree at some point in their life — some people intending to return to college at age 30 may have decided to enroll at age 27 when the economy tanked. A few years out, we can look at the 30-34 year old rates to check the second issue.
  • This increase happened in an era of huge state-level disinvestment in public higher education, where most college students attend. What was this about inefficiency and Baumol cost disease, again?
  • Wonkish caveat 1: a small number of adults in their late 20s are immigrants who moved to the U.S. after age 15 and never enrolled in high school in the U.S., and this fact may be biasing both the level of the estimate (which would be biased on the low side if you are looking at the performance of education for those who have at least some education in the U.S.) and also the trend (by the slowdown/slight reversal of immigration during the Lesser Depression).
  • Wonkish caveat 2: we do not know how much of this increase is due to the for-profit higher ed bubble. I don’t think the March Population Survey (the source of this data) asks for anything beyond attainment level for adults. You could guesstimate that via graduation counts and some assumptions about age distribution of new degrees, but that would be a separate analysis. My professional gut instinct would say that for-profit higher ed has very little impact on the general graduation rate, but my gut has no vocal cords, no degree, and no job.
  • Wonkish caveat 3: this estimate is only for “non-institutionalized” adults in their late 20s. As Becky Pettit would point out, this leaves out imprisoned adults, who have much lower educational attainment than the rest of the population. It is highly unlikely that the increase in college graduation between 2006 and today is an artifact of incarceration, but the omission of inmates from the Census Bureau samples biases the level upwards.
  • Wonkish plug: Fry and Parker downloaded the data from the Minnesota Population Center’s International Public Use Microdata Sample library, the best source for general census-bureau data for social scientists. Go, Steve and team!
Despite the caveats above, at least some of the increase is real, is likely to be permanent, and happened during a huge funding crisis in higher education. Hats off to my colleagues around the country!
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