While answering a question for Science and Religion Today (“Is it of greater importance for America to have more scientific experts or less scientific illiteracy” ? short answer: both, but if I must, I’d choose scientific literacy), I started toying around with these data on graduation rates in different generations:
Based on the General Social Survey, I plotted the percent saying they completed at least high school, college or junior college, and grad school against their birth year. The drop off for college and high school right at the end is probably just a sign that some people take a year off before college, or during college, or take some time to complete high school or get their GED, so I’m not really interested in that.
What’s interesting, and possibly troubling, is the decline in number of people completing grad school. High school graduation rates seem to have stabilized or even be declining, college graduation rates seem to be up until you get to populations to college-aged people, and there’s no doubt that the fraction doing graduate programs has declined over the last couple of generations (since the cohort graduating college in the ’70s).
I’m certainly not going to claim that everyone should have a college degree, let alone a graduate degree. The increasing fraction of the population with a high school education is important and good, as is the upward trend in college graduation.
But I do worry about the apparent decline in graduate studies. That drop-off corresponds with the end of the space race, during which time a lot of money was put into science education, and to producing a generation of scientists and innovators. The goal was military research, but the effect was broad-based. And it produced innovations large and small which kept the US at the forefront of the global economy. The decline in graduate education, and stasis or decline in college education and high school graduation, is part of a broader story about the US’s decline as a world power, and our apparent willingness to let other countries make the innovations that will define the 21st century, and that will dominate geopolitics and economics for the next century and more.
This is mostly a tangent from my essay at Science and Religion Today, so you should read that, too.