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Boomers Once Led the World in Education. What Happened?

In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States had the best-educated young people in the world, or pretty close to it. But a disturbing new report from the Council on Foreign Relations says that the generations who've followed the boomers haven't been able to maintain that global edge - and that, as a result, America's ability to compete economically is suffering as well.

Related: Are We Teaching Our Next Generation the Right Stuff?

The council, a nonpartisan think tank whose 4,700 members include such luminaries as  journalist Fareed Zakaria and actress-activist Angelina Jolie, notes that among people ages 55 to 64, Americans rank first in the percentage who've earned high school degrees and third in those who've earned college and graduate degrees. But Americans ages 25 to 34 only rank 10th in the world in high school diplomas, and they've dropped to 13th in attaining post-secondary degrees.


It's not that 25-to-34-year-olds are less educated than boomers: 88 percent of them earned high school diplomas, compared with 90 percent of boomers, and they actually managed a tiny edge - 42 percent to 41 percent - in post-secondary degrees. The real problem is that they're slipping in relation to their global counterparts.

Paradoxically, younger Americans are entering college at a higher rate - 70 percent - than the boomer generation managed. In 1970, only 48.4 percent of high school graduates went on to higher education, according to a study published in 2010 in the American Journal of Applied Economics. But that edge is negated, because fewer than half of today's students manage to stay in school and earn degrees, a slightly lower completion rate than boomers.  According to the CFR report, the United States has the highest dropout rate in the developed world. A likely reason is the astronomical rise in tuition costs during that time: from 1970 to 2007, tuition costs at colleges and universities rose by nearly 1000 percent, according to personal finance blogger and author Trent Hamm.


Illustration: Council on Foreign Relations


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