Educational attainment skyrocketing

Against all obstacles imposed by their elders, today’s youth are our best educated and behaved generation ever

Line up all the experts and pundits end to end, and they still can’t explain why crime, violence, and other ills plunged over the last 20 years. They haven’t even clearly stated what occurred, which is simple: The massive crime decline among young people more than offset the massive crime increase among older ages. That’s why crime is down.

It’s not just crime. Violence, gun deaths, and what we euphemistically call “teen pregnancy” have all plummeted among young people to record lows. No one knows why, though various interests try to claim credit.

The best explanation from the widespread nature of these trends is that they are generational in nature, one external, the other internal. Two possibly interrelated environmental, and social trends affecting young people stand out: the large decline in lead toxin levels in recent generations and the massive increase in educational attainment among young people.

While previous blogs have discussed lead levels, this one examines the other remarkable, undiscussed social trend: the massive decline in the proportion of young people who have not graduated from high school and are not enrolled in school, and the corresponding surge in young people’s college attendance and graduation over the last 20 years.

Table 1 and the figure on the homepage show that in California in 1990, one-fourth of Californians age 16-24 were neither high school graduates nor attending school. Today, this “status dropout” proportion has fallen to one in 10. Meanwhile, the proportion in college or graduating from college rose from 35 percent to 47 percent. Among older generations, similar trends occurred in less pronounced fashion… and, apparently, with different effects.

Table 1. Rates of violent, homicide, and drug abuse death by age and educational attainment

2013 rates per 100,000 population by age group Educational attainment
Violent deaths Homicides Drug deaths 2013 1990
Age 16-24
Less than high school* 91.2 44.6 8.1 10.3% 25.2%
High school graduate 48.3 15.7 6.7 43.0% 39.4%
Some college 29.1 3.6 5.0 40.7% 31.2%
College degree or higher 13.7 0.2 4.0 6.0% 4.2%
Age 25-44
Less than high school 56.2 14.6 11.0 17.0% 23.8%
High school graduate 80.5 13.2 24.4 20.6% 22.3%
Some college 39.0 4.4 12.8 30.0% 30.5%
College degree or higher 16.1 0.8 5.1 32.4% 23.4%
Age 45-64
Less than high school 58.1 5.8 19.5 18.3% 23.7%
High school graduate 110.2 6.0 48.0 20.3% 23.0%
Some college 48.4 2.0 18.9 30.8% 29.0%
College degree or higher 33.7 1.5 10.0 30.6% 24.2%

Sources: Center for Health Statistics (2015); Census Bureau 1990 1990 and 2013.

The result is that the youth and young-adult population – the one most likely to drop out before getting a high school diploma in 1990 – is now the least likely to have dropped out. While younger populations lagged far behind older ones in college involvement (understandably, since most 16-17 year-olds have not reached college age) 25 years ago, they now are closing the gap with their elders.

Table 1 further shows the importance of these educational trends and corroborates those of our earlier work on crime and poverty. Authorities often blame 16-24 year-olds for gun violence, but few mention salient realities: first, the rate has dropped dramatically in that age group; and second, five-sixths of youthful gun murders involve those with poverty levels of 20 percent or higher.

Similarly, nine in 10 homicides among those age 16-24 involve those with a high school diploma or less. Meanwhile, college students and graduates, 47 percent of all teens and young adults, suffer just 11 percent of murders in their age group; a status dropout is more than 200 times more likely to be murdered than a college graduate.

The singularly high risks of low-education/dropout populations, where homicide, drug abuse, and violent deaths among the young are similarly concentrated, are what we mistakenly call “adolescent risk.” The stunning decline in the size of the low-education/dropout population over the last 20 years explains why nearly every “adolescent risk” has plummeted to record-low levels.

Equally striking, the young dropout population is considerably more at risk than their older counterparts, but the young population that has graduated from high school or is in college is less at risk than their elders who have similar educational attainment. To add to complications, the relationship between educational attainment and risk, though evident, is less clear for older ages.

While drug abuse mortality is considerably higher among older than younger populations, it is concentrated in middle-aged populations with only a high school diploma, and less so in populations with less than high school or college or higher educational attainment. The reasons for this pattern are not clear; demographic statistics show the drug abuse epidemic concentrated in aging Whites and African Americans, two populations with very different levels of advantage.

The bottom line is that more education is strongly linked to lower crime and violence rates, as well as of other ills, with especially strong and consistent effects on young people. However, this explanation raises more questions.

Why did educational attainment rise so sharply in the Millennial generation, in spite of rampant legislative defunding of public schools, restricting of university classes, and imposing vastly greater debt on students today? Why are young people today more inclined than past generations to succeed educationally – is it internal personal motivation, external changes such as reduced lead exposure, or a combination? Does that inclination itself, along with tangible educational attainment, influence the risk of crime, murder, and other violence? We should have answers to these vital questions.

We need to end the denial that these trends have occurred  as well as the clamor of interests to claim credit so that we can understand how to reinforce these astonishing trends instead of standing in the way. (Mike Males)
*Notes: “Age 16-24” is a combination of trends for ages 16-19 and 18-24 pro-rated to their respective populations. For age 16-19, “less than high school” refers to those “status dropouts” who have not graduated and are not in school; “high school graduate” refers to those who have graduated or are in school. Owing to the differences in age groups and education levels used by the Center for Health Statistics and the Census Bureau for 1990 and 2013, figures in Table 1 are approximate but bounded.