The nation has made giant strides in education since 1940, when only 24 percent of people age 25 and older had finished four years of high school or more, according to recently -released educational attainment data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.
In contrast, 77 years later a high school education is viewed as a prerequisite for many jobs in the modern economy, which helps explain the record 90 percent high school completion rate today.
Fast Increase In Hispanics Finishing High School
As the educational attainment of the population as a whole increased, so did the high school completion of all race and Hispanic origin groups (Figure 1).
The share of non-Hispanic whites who completed four years of high school or more education increased from 86 percent in 1997 to 94 percent in 2017. Over the same period, the percentage of blacks who completed high school or more education increased from 75 percent to 87 percent.
Over the 20-year period, Hispanic high school completion increased at a greater rate than white or black completion, up from 55 percent in 1997 to 71 percent in 2017.
Now that 90 percent of people have completed high school or more, the question arises: Who are the 10 percent that have not?
Differences Between Foreign-Born And Native-Born
Figure 2 shows the group that did not complete high school by race, Hispanic origin and nativity status.
Native-born non-Hispanic whites and foreign-born Hispanics are the two largest groups of people with educational attainment below high school completion.
This, in part, reflects the age distribution of non-Hispanic whites. Because a larger proportion of non-Hispanic whites are age 50 and older compared to other groups, they completed their schooling when a smaller proportion of people finished high school.
This also reflects lower rates of high school completion among foreign-born Hispanics.
Overall, the foreign- born accounted for 54 percent of people who did not complete high school. Among Hispanics, the proportion is even larger: — 76 percent were foreign- born.
Counting both the foreign- born and native- born, 30 percent of Hispanics had less than a high school education. Among native-born Hispanics, 15 percent did not finish high school.
Larger percentages of the foreign- born across all race and ethnicity groups have not finished high school or higher levels of education. However, nearly as many have bachelor’s degrees or higher, and more completed advanced degrees than people born in the United States (Figure 3).
The difference between the native-born and foreign-born population who have a bachelor’s degree or higher is slight: — 34 percent of the native- born compared to 33 percent of the foreign- born. And, while 13 percent of the native- born have advanced degrees (master’s, professional and doctorate degrees), a slightly greater 14 percent of the foreign- born do.
Information about educational attainment can be found in the 2017 educational attainment tables. These data are from the Current Population Survey's Annual Social and Economic Supplement. The Current Population Survey, sponsored jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, is the primary source of labor force statistics for the population of the United States. The survey also provides a wealth of other demographic, social and economic information.
By Erik Schmidt is a survey statistician in the Census Bureau's Social, Economic and Housing Statistics Division.