Back to school a mixed picture for U.S. young adults

It’s back-to-school time, the annual ritual marking the end of summer and one of this country’s most widely shared rites of passage. Even so, the flood of youth and young adults into schools and classrooms every fall does not include everyone. One in five high school students does not graduate, not every high school graduate goes to college, and not every college student completes his or her degree.

No one is satisfied with these statistics, even as debates rage about how to improve them. It is a truism that educational success is correlated with success in employment and earnings, but as David Foster Wallace once noted, the trouble with clichés is that we become desensitized to them and thus don’t see what is hidden in plain sight. Differences in educational attainment underlie much of the nation’s economic inequality, and both intersect with race and ethnicity in troubling ways.

Let’s look at young adults in their early 20s—those of an age to have graduated from college or earned another post-secondary credential. While not always the case, this is a common age for young people to transition from school and casual work to full-time employment.

The effects of education on employment and earnings are stark. The employment rate of those in their early 20s with a bachelor’s degree (79 percent) is nearly 30 percent higher than those with a high school diploma or below (60 percent). Median annual earnings for 23 to 24-year-olds with a bachelor’s degree ($32,000) are 40 percent higher than those with a high school degree or below ($21,000).

In turn, the effects of race/ethnicity on education are equally stark. Blacks and Latinos aged 18 to 24 have moderately lower levels of school enrollment than whites of the same age, but sharply different levels of educational attainment by their early 20s, reflecting a leaky educational pipeline. The 8 percentage point difference in school enrollment between whites and blacks turns into a 17 percentage point difference in bachelor’s degree attainment by age 23-24. Similarly, the 10 percentage point difference in school enrollment between Latinos and whites turns into a 20 percentage point difference in degree attainment.

figures 1 and 2

Consistent with the strong correlation between education and employment noted above, many blacks and Latinos in their early 20s struggle to gain traction in the labor market. Blacks have the lowest employment rate (57 percent) and median annual earnings ($21,000), and while Latinos have the second highest employment rate (67 percent), their earnings are also low ($22,000). Asians have the second-lowest employment rates (59 percent), but the highest earnings ($30,000), likely related to their high levels of school enrollment and B.A. attainment, respectively.

figures 3 and 4

While education is a powerful vehicle for upward mobility, other factors contribute to disparities by race and ethnicity, as research on discrimination and racial wealth gaps have shown. Yet the need to provide all young people access to educational experiences that are engaging, motivating, and challenging is undeniable. Improving student enrollment, retention, and completion has to be a priority—making back to school a time of promise for all young people.

Note: All data are from the 2011-2013 American Community Survey 3-year microdata. Data analysis by Nicole Svajlenka.