Federal Statistics Show Young Adults Gaining In Education Over Past Generations But Facing Greater Economic Challenges

Ed Attainmentfederal report released Friday shows young adults (age 18-24) have made significant gains in educational attainment over the last two generations.

The report is a special young adults issue of the annual Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics – a project of the federal Office of Management and Budget.

Among its findings:

  • High school completion increased from 79 percent to 84 percent among young adult women from 1980 to 2013, and from 75 percent to 81 percent for young men during the same period.
  • College enrollment among all young adults – men and women combined - increased by a wider margin, from 26 percent in 1980 to 41 percent in 2012.

But while young adults may be better educated, the report shows they also face greater financial burdens than their predecessors in of the 1980s and 1990s.

  • The percentage of young adults in their fourth year of college who received student loans or PLUS (Parent Loans for Undergraduates) increased from 50 percent in 1989-90 to 68 percent in 2011-12.
  • The mean cumulative debt per fourth-year college student increased from $14,000 to $25,400 (adjusted for inflation) during that period.
  • 65 percent of young adults were working in 2012, compare with the peak rate of 75 percent in 1986.
  • And from 1990 to 2013, the percentage of young adults age 20-24 that were neither enrolled in school nor working also increased, but by a relatively small two percentage points.

The report contains many other statistics that illustrate the challenges young people face compared to decades past, including more obesity, dramatically lower birth rates among women, and greater housing cost burdens.  Other stats showed improvement such as decreased smoking and substance abuse and fewer either experiencing or being exposed to violence. Katherine K. Wallman, Chief Statistician in the Office of Management and Budget, says in the forward:  

The well-being of young adults in the United States today remains an area of key interest to the public and policy-makers alike. This age group faces the well-known challenges of achieving financial and social independence while forming their own households at a time of greater economic uncertainty than in the past. Better understanding of the achievements and needs of these young adults will inform approaches to best support this exciting and challenging transition to adulthood.


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