College & Workforce Readiness

Number of Americans Finishing High School Hits All-Time High

By Catherine Gewertz — September 27, 2000 3 min read

The proportion of Americans who have completed high school or its equivalent has risen to an all-time high, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report released this month. But some experts caution against interpreting the findings as a sign that young people are learning more or improving their job prospects.

For More Information

The survey “Educational Attainment in the United States, Current Population Reports, March 1999,” is available online. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader), or can be ordered by calling (301) 457-2422.

The Census Bureau’s findings show that more than four-fifths of the nation’s adults age 25 or older—83 percent— had earned high school diplomas or passed the General Educational Development test as of early 1999, a finding that conforms to the trend of rising educational attainment over the past century. U.S. Department of Education figures show that in 1940, just 24.5 percent of Americans 25 or older had completed high school.

“It’s been up, up, up in the last 60 years, and it ain’t going down,” said Eric C. Newburger, a Census Bureau statistician and the author of the report. “I expect that when we do the numbers next year, they’ll keep going up. We’re more educated than ever.”

‘More Credentials’

The data, collected by phone and in person from 50,000 households in March of last year, were received with skepticism in some quarters.

Clifford Adelman, a senior research analyst with the U.S. Department of Education’s office of educational research and improvement, said the bureau’s finding that one-fourth of American adults now earn bachelor’s degrees reveals less about students’ education than would an inquiry about which courses—and how many—they have taken.

“You can’t necessarily say we’re doing better,” Mr. Adelman said. “All you can say is that we’re awarding more credentials.”

Richard J. Murnane, a professor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education who has been researching the GED, said that by failing to distinguish between those who finished high school with conventional diplomas and those who did so through the equivalency exam, the report obscures some troubling aspects of the trend toward increased use of the GED.

Half a million Americans received a GED credential in 1998, more than double the number who did so in 1971, he said, and one-seventh of those who report on government surveys that they are high school graduates received that credential after dropping out.

Those who receive GEDs do not fare as well in the labor market as do those who earn diplomas, Mr. Murnane said, in part because of employers’ perception that they are dropouts, and so might not prove as reliable as diploma holders. Recipients of the equivalency diploma also tend not to do as well, he said, because they are less likely to attend college, which translates into added dollar value in the marketplace.

Among the other findings in the Census Bureau report is one that shows that the youngest adults, ages 25 to 29, had higher educational attainment than older citizens. Almost nine in 10 (88 percent) in that age group reported having completed high school, compared with 63 percent of those 75 and older.

But the report says that the rise in young people’s educational attainment may be leveling off, since the percentages have remained similar in the past few years, both in high school and college completion.

Age, Race, and Gender

Racial and ethnic differences were also apparent in the survey results. Eighty-eight percent of non-Hispanic whites ages 25 or older said they had completed high school, compared with 85 percent of Asians and Pacific Islanders, 77 percent of non-Hispanic African-Americans, and 56 percent of Hispanics of any race.

The black-white gap narrowed to only 4 percentage points in the 25-to-29 age group, however, with 93 percent of whites and Asian-Americans and 89 percent of blacks having completed high school. More than 60 percent of Hispanics in that age group said they had completed high school.

Patterns by gender emerged as well. Among those 25 or older, men and women showed the same rate of high school completion (83 percent), a figure the report says has held steady for a decade. But slightly more men had earned bachelor’s degrees (28 percent) than women (23 percent).

In the 25-to-29 age group, the picture changed, with slightly greater percentages of women reporting that they had finished high school and earning bachelor’s degrees (90 percent and 30 percent, respectively) than men (86 percent and 27 percent).

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