The Crisis in Adult Education; Education Is a Key Factor in Fueling Economic Growth, but the Educational Attainment of Our Workers Is Slipping Badly. New Strategies Are Needed to Help Undereducated Adults

By Bosworth, Brian | Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

The Crisis in Adult Education; Education Is a Key Factor in Fueling Economic Growth, but the Educational Attainment of Our Workers Is Slipping Badly. New Strategies Are Needed to Help Undereducated Adults


Bosworth, Brian, Issues in Science and Technology


During the past several decades, a dramatic increase in the educational attainment of the U.S. labor force has helped boost worker productivity and fuel national economic growth. However, the demographic forces that produced this increase have ended. Unless the United States makes some fundamental adjustments in its national strategies for the education of adults, labor force attainment will stagnate, productivity will lag, and economic growth will suffer.

The historic increase in educational attainment was driven by the fortunate confluence of two factors. First, the baby boomers, huge numbers of them, began working. From 1960 to 2000, the number of workers in their prime productive years (ages 25 to 54) increased by more than 120%, from about 45.5 million to 100 million workers. Second, these new workers were much more highly educated than their elders. For example, in 1960 only 60% of workers in the 25-to-29 age group had a high-school diploma or better and fewer than 8% had a bachelor's degree or higher. But by 1990, 84% of this group of younger workers had a high-school diploma and 22% had a bachelor's degree.

Just as successively larger new cohorts of these better-educated workers joined the labor force in the 1960s and on through the 1980s, less-educated older workers were leaving the labor force. As a result, the overall educational attainment of the workforce increased dramatically, especially between 1970 and 1990.

The increase in the educational attainment of the labor force made a substantial contribution to economic growth and rising productivity--as much as 20 to 25% of overall labor productivity growth, according to some estimates. The indirect contribution made by better educations in fueling innovation and technology growth may have been even greater.

However, this long-term increase in labor force educational attainment is now over. Predictably, the labor force impact of the baby boom peaked during the 1990s, and from 1990 to 2000, the number of workers aged 25 to 34 actually fell. Similarly, but less predictably, the increase in educational attainment leveled off. The percentage of younger people entering the workforce in the 1990s with at least a high-school diploma was no higher than in the 1980s, and it has not increased in the current decade. The percentage of 25-to-34-year-olds with a bachelor's degree began to level off even earlier, from 1980 to 1990.

Future demographic trends are unfavorable to rising educational attainment in the workforce. During the next several decades, the older workers leaving the workforce (the aging baby boomers) will be as well educated or better educated than the new workers coming in. The next generation of workers is far more racially and ethnically diverse than in the past and has greater representation of groups that historically have not been well served in either K-12 or post-secondary education. In 2000, whites were twice as likely as African Americans and three times as likely as Hispanics to earn a bachelor's degree. By 2020, the proportion of whites in the workforce will drop to 63%, from 82% in 1980. The proportion of Hispanics will nearly triple. We can hope that the rates of high-school completion and college readiness among African Americans and Hispanics will significantly increase during the next decade or two, but there currently is no evidence that this will happen.

Moreover, it seems unlikely that college entrance rates, which have remained relatively flat during the past several years, will somehow increase enough to offset the decline in the rate of population growth. Additionally, the college graduation rate for two-year and four-year colleges has actually decreased during the past 20 years, and although much is possible that could turn that around, it would take a stunning increase to make an appreciable difference in the face of the other negative demographic trends.

During the next few decades, the demographic trends yielding a much smaller rate of increase in the younger segments of the labor force and the postsecondary attainment trends reflecting the leveling off of college entrance and completion rates will come together. …

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