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Tuesday, December 1, 2015


Jim Westrich quite properly calls me to account with regard to my recent post about graduation rates.  Here is what he says:

"I think my response is going to be way more nerdy than you would like but here goes.  While I think as "a back of an envelope calculation" using educational attainment rates twenty years ago for those 25+ as a proxy for current educational attainment of 45+ I bristled when I read that. So, I used the CPS ASEC (March 2015) survey (this is the same data source as your linked data above) and looked at the educational attainment of those 45+ directly. The number is 30.1% so I think it is very different than the 23% of your approximation. This number is in line with other published numbers in recent years.  While there are several factors that could make your method less accurate (net in-migration of college educated, lower mortality of college educated, etc.) the main issue is that there is a significant number of people completing degrees after 25. I am not immediately finding great data on this but this Gallup article gets at it somewhat:     I do not mean to quibble with the general point but college education is increasingly happening later in life and in "non-traditional" ways."

First of all, Jim, I cannot find the table listing "the educational attainment of those 45+ directly."  Can you point me to it with a URL?  Starting from that number, where did I go wrong?  Obviously, by assuming that relatively few people complete their degrees after age 25.  But that immediately raises a question I do not have the data to answer, viz., are these people simply finishing up at age 26 or 27 or 28, perhaps delayed because of funding problems?  Or are they people who have actually left college without degrees when 19, 20, 21, 22, or 23 and then returned in their thirties or even forties to finish up?  It would be really interesting to know which. 

Note, by the way, that there has been a big change in college attendance patterns since I was a student.  Back then, you went straight through in four years unless you were a woman who got pregnant, in which case you "went to Europe" for a year .  Now, colleges, when they offer admission, routinely have a box to check if you are postponing for a year, and the standard statistic measuring a college's success with its students is the "six year graduation rate"  [corresponding figure for doctoral programs is the "ten year completion rate."]

During my thirty -seven years at UMass, I saw very few over-twenty-five undergraduates, but that may be because even UMass, believe it or not, counts as "elite" in a nation of two thousand four year degree granting institutions, and I would guess that there are many more older undergraduates at the non-elite than at the elite schools.  So perhaps I am making the familiar mistake of thinking that what is happening around me is typical of the world as a whole.

At any rate, thank you, Jim, for the correction, and do send me the URL if you have it.




Jim Westrich said...

I downloaded the raw individual data and calculated it directly myself (I selected all those in the survey over 45 and used the proper weights--then just reported their educational attainment). I have worked with CPS (ASEC) data a lot in the past so it was quite easy--it is like "riding a bike" when some of your old computer code runs flawlessly. In fact, if you would like this data manipulated, crosstabbed, or stratified in some way let me know.

Raw ASEC data is at:
NBER has good input statements for various statistical programs:

I should also note that another large group have an associates degree of some sort (9.4%) and that even more have had "some college" (16.1%). That is 55.6% of 45 year olds have attended at least some college.

I am going to try to find some data on the age of graduation from 4-year colleges (when I have some time).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thanks, Jim. I am going to leave the number crunching to you, as my "old computer code" [which is to say my brain] just locates appropriate passages in the Critique of Pure Reason. :)

By the way, the data on AA degrees and "some college" are of course interesting, but do not I think fundamentally alter my point about the very large number of people closed out from good jobs.

Matt said...

I went to college at Boise State University in the early to mid 90's. Boise State is no one's idea of elite, but in Idaho going there was looked at as a perfectly respectable and even good thing to do. (It was also extremely cheap - not including room and board [most people lived off-campus anyway], it was about $800/semester when I started and about $1000/semester when I graduated. It's more now, but not that much more. This had good and bad aspects that I'll come back to.) But, when I went to BSU, something like 40% of the students were "non-traditional", meaning that they were 24 or older. Lots of them were people who had, say, gone into the military, or worked, or went part-time, or went for some years and then came back, or who had a kid and then came back. People also went somewhat erratically. This was one down-side of it being so cheap - starting but not finishing, or going some times and then not others, wasn't a huge lost investment in the way it would be if it cost (even!) $10K/year, let alone $50K/year. So, people would go in and out, and finish very slowly, or even not finish. Or, they would change their mind part way through as to what to do. (That, and working all during school, is why I took 5 years to graduate.) I believe that it's been a goal of BSU to become a more "traditional" school as far as age of the student population and percent living on campus, but I'm not completely sure that's a good thing. I found it really useful to have lots of different sorts of people, with different experiences, in my classes.

(You can bet that, from Idaho, where even something like SUNY Albany sounds elite, U Mass Amherst seems very elite indeed. I think it's really only a sort of strange provincialism of the east coast upper class that makes this not clear to many people!)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you, Matt. I suspect your experience is matched by that of many people at campuses across the country. And to think that when I left Columbia for UMass I thought I was returning to "the people." How blinded we are by the particularities of our experiences!

Matt said...

No problem - I should add that the last thing I said sounded somewhat like an insult. I didn't mean that. Only, my experience is that people in the North East (especially middle/upper middle class people in the North East) have a very different view on college than much of the rest of the country, and especially the West. In Idaho, where I'm from, most people have no idea about the difference between Penn and Penn State, for example. If anything, they probably think higher of Penn State, because they heard of it (because of football.) (On the other hand, I have had quite a few Penn students who had no idea that Cal Tech was one of the top schools in the country for sciences.) Now, the view out in Idaho, and lots of the west, is pretty clearly anti-intellectual in a way that's not at all admirable, but not every bit of it is bad.

Ted said...

One additional data point on age of degree recipients: a study from the Department of Education found that about 15 percent of bachelor's degrees in 2007-2008 were awarded to people aged 30 and older.

Table 1 (on p. 4 of the report):

DEMOGRAPHIC AND UNDERGRADUATE COLLEGE CHARACTERISTICS: Percentage distribution of 2007–08 bachelor’s degree recipients by demographic and enrollment characteristics: 2012

Age at bachelor’s degree award:
23 or younger: 64.8
24–29: 19.8
30 or older: 15.4