My observations and inferences about the proportion of the adult American population with college degrees produced some very interesting and useful comments, to which I should like to reply.
First things first. I was quite wrong to suppose that few people complete their college degrees after the age of 25. Indeed, it is obvious from the data offered by several commentators that a significant number of people do. My overall point remains correct that two-thirds of adults over the age of 25 do not have college degrees, and are therefore ineligible for a wide range of good jobs in the American economy, but I was quite wrong to infer from this fact that dramatically smaller percentages of older Americans have college degrees. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa [or words to that effect.] But two other points were raised in the comments that are quite important. Let me say a few words about each.
First, one of the most attractive features of the American higher education system is the endless series of second chances it offers to those who were not launched into the world via exclusive pre-schools, elementary schools, secondary schools, or universities. It is quite possible in America to goof off or stumble through the early years of one's education, even failing to graduate from high school or perhaps exiting with a minimal high school degree, and yet not thereby be forever shut out from a good or even superior higher education. With determination and a little luck, one can go to a local two-year Community College, take academic track courses while holding down a job, transfer those credits to a nearby branch of the State College system, work hard, earn a first degree, and do well enough to gain entrance to a graduate M. A. program at one of the State University campuses, moving up to a doctoral or professional degree program and eventually exiting the system with professional credentials as good as those earned by those born with silver spoons in their mouths.
The United States, I believe, is almost unique in this regard. In much of the world, those who have not entered the educational system advantageously and progressed steadily are pretty much barred, either by formal rules or de facto practice, from ever acquiring really good advanced educational credentials.
The second point raised by the comments concerns the regionalization of American higher education. In many countries, there is a clear distinction, educationally as well as in other ways, between the metropolis and the boondocks. Oxford and Cambridge, Paris, Berlin, Moscow. But the American higher educational world has many local elites and regional centers whose importance is enormous for the surrounding several hundred miles or so. I was first made aware of this fact in 1961, when my Instructorship at Harvard ended and I moved to an Assistant Professorship at the University of Chicago. Having been at Harvard for eleven years, from my sixteenth year onward, I simply accepted the unquestioned assumption there that Harvard Square was the center of the intellectual universe. When I arrived in Hyde Park, I discovered that it had its own demi-gods, some of whom I had not even heard of! The local Mr. Big was Richard McKeon, a senior member of the Philosophy Department. Full professors, including the Chair of the Department, spoke of him with hushed voice and bated breath. I thought he was a horse's ass, and actually had a rather comical encounter with him during the question period after a talk he gave. [[He accused me of arguing like Thomas Wolfe. I replied that he argued like Virginia Woolf [correct spelling courtesy of Ron Irving]. It was not an elevated exchange.]]
As the years passed and I gave talks at campuses in many parts of the country, I found that in each of them there were local heroes and heroines who were held in awe by their colleagues, even though the larger philosophical world scarcely knew their names. America was simply too big and too varied to have a single Metropolitan gravitational center to which everyone was irresistibly drawn. Chicago was not known as the Second City for nothing.
I have always wondered about China, a country with a population four times that of America. Does a similar regionalization of higher education exist there? Does anyone reading this know? I would love to hear from you. And what about India?