The Best-Educated Generation in American History Isn't Educated Enough

A brief history of the last 100 years in education gains.

In 1900, the typical American was in school for no more than eight years. Less than a quarter of men and women graduated from high school. And finishing college was a luxury for the one percent.

To make us feel good about ourselves, take a look at all the progress we made over the last 100 years, first in median years of schooling ...

... then in high school completion ...

... and now in college graduation rates.

The 100-year story is up-up-and-away for both high school and college graduation, but as you can see there is some stagnation, too. College attendance among Americans of non-Asian descent has flattened. High school completion rates for Americans of African and Latin American descent still lag the national average badly.

So even as this generation is clearly the most-educated in American history, people can (and do) get fooled by the historical thrust of education attainment and conclude that we've made all the progress we can make. Cable TV, in particular, is lousy with calls to replace college, skip college, or say "we've tried that" when somebody proposes higher graduation rates as a solution to social mobility problems. It's a dangerous and expensive complacency, because the minority of teenagers who aren't graduating from high school and college are still sacrificing future wages and productivity.

These "sacrifices" have a multiplicative effect. They cascade down the generations, because the education system is, perhaps, our most effective tool for intergenerational mobility. Young teenagers whose fathers graduated from high school are 8 times more likely to graduate, themselves. "The high school dropout rate among people whose fathers were dropouts is 22.2 percent," Evan Soltas explained. "The dropout rate with high-school-grad fathers is 2.9 percent." He goes on:

Let's assume that the social value of a high school degree is $30,000 per graduate; that's roughly the difference in average income between non-grads and grads. Public policy that supposes they are helping one person assesses the value of that degree at $30,000, obviously. Public policy that supposes they are helping an infinite succession of people assesses the value of that degree at $819,000.

The point to take away isn't that a high-school degree is worth exactly $819,000. Rather, the benefits to high school graduation are much more valuable than we might think.

The education story of the 20th century is a walloping success story, but those who have fallen in the cracks belong to an underclass of US economy that rarely shares in the fruits of GDP growth and productivity booms. Yes, this is the most-educated generation in American history, but that achievement is another step forward, not a finish line.

Presented by

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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