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February 4, 2009

most people aren't going to college

Reporters and others consistently equate youth with college students. Going to college is treated as the norm, and those who don't enroll are seen as some kind of exceptional minority that needs help with "college access." I've also heard the argument that college is the best time to develop civic and ethical skills and values.

It is therefore essential to understand that most young adults do not attend college, even 2-year or community college. The norm is to finish one's education at high school. Nor have rates of college attendance budged upward for decades. CIRCLE's fact sheet (PDF) shows the flat trend:

Another way to show the current situation comes from a new Bureau of Labor Statistics report (pdf), which uses the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, "a nationally representative survey of about 9,000 young men and women who were born during the years 1980 to 1984." This is my graph derived from that report:

It shows that during the traditional "college years" (ages 18-21), the proportion of young adults who are actually in college never reaches 40%. To be sure, some of the others will obtain college credits--and even bachelors degrees--during their lifetimes. (The fact that you can attend college at any point makes it hard to say what the college matriculation and graduation rates are for a given generation--we only really know after they all die.) But it's clear that the norm is not to go to college when one is of conventional "college age."

I'm in favor of getting more young adults on a college path, to the extent that's possible. But we are nowhere close to enrolling everyone, and it's not obvious that that would even make economic sense. Thus it is essential not to reserve enriching, rewarding, and remunerative opportunities for the minority of people who go to college. We also need to watch our language and our assumptions--"youth" doesn't mean "college student," and college attendance is not (in any sense) the norm.

February 4, 2009 10:26 AM | category: none


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