The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) is a multi-country survey of adults, developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), that measures skill proficiency in the domains of numeracy, literacy, and technology-based problem-solving. In addition to direct skills assessment, PIAAC also collects rich demographic, health, and employment data through an individual background questionnaire.
Drawing from a small subset of education and demographic variables, the following indicators show trends in U.S. educational attainment across age cohorts, and within the millennial age cohort, by first-generation and underrepresented minority statuses. Attainment level reflects an individual's highest self-reported education qualification. For these analyses, educational attainment levels are presented with U.S. terminology, translated from the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) coding system in which PIAAC attainment data are reported. While PIAAC data allow for international comparisons, the indicators below reflect U.S. trends only.
Educational Attainment of U.S. Population by Age Cohort
The figure below shows trends in U.S. educational attainment across age cohorts in ten-year bands. The youngest cohort presented (ages 25 to 34) represents millennials, a purposively oversampled population of the PIAAC survey.
Across the four age cohorts, the most sizable differences in educational attainment appear at the high school and bachelor’s degree levels. Across successive cohorts of U.S. adults, smaller shares of younger adults hold a high school credential as their highest education qualification, while an increasingly greater share hold a bachelor’s degree. Slightly greater shares of millennials (11%) also hold an associate’s degree compared to older age cohorts (8% to 10%). These analyses mirror national trends in increased college-going and degree attainment among younger U.S. residents.
While career and technical education is a current policy priority at the federal and state levels, PIAAC data reveal that comparable shares of U.S. adults spanning four decades hold vocational certificates. These data, however, reflect the years 2012 and 2014, and it is unclear if greater shares of young adults have completed postsecondary certificates in the past few years.
Older age cohorts outperform millennials in one regard: the share who hold advanced degrees, though this is likely a function of time. As millennials age and mature in their careers, they may continue to display a college-going disposition and attain a graduate or professional degree after the category’s age cap of 34.
Educational Attainment of U.S. Millennials by First-Generation Status
Within the U.S. millennial population (ages 25 to 34), the PIAAC data reveal sizeable gaps in educational attainment between first-generation (FG) and continuing-generation (CG) students. First-generation status is operationalized as neither parent holding a postsecondary credential.
The majority of FG millennials do not hold a postsecondary credential, as 57% count a high school credential or less as their highest education qualification. By comparison, fewer than one-third (30%) of CG millennials fall into these same lower attainment categories. At the other end of the spectrum, CG millennials far outpace their FG counterparts in the share who hold a bachelor’s degree (32% vs. 15%) or advanced degree (17% vs. 4%). At the sub-baccalaureate level, however, comparable shares of FG and CG millennials hold vocational certificates and associate’s degrees (10% to 12% range). These findings reinforce the widely known disparities in educational attainment that first-generation students face, as parents’ education level strongly correlates with their children’s own attainment.
Educational Attainment of U.S. Millennials by Underrepresented Minority Status
PIAAC data also reveal that millennial-age “underrepresented minorities” (operationalized as individuals who self-identify as Black or Hispanic/Latino on the survey instrument) demonstrate lower levels of educational attainment compared to millennials who self-identify as White or Asian/Pacific Islander. Nearly two out of three Black and Hispanic millennials do not hold a postsecondary credential, with 63% holding a high school credential or less as their highest education qualification. By contrast, a significantly smaller share (37%) of White and Asian millennials fall into these lower attainment categories. As a group, White and Asian millennials far outpace their Black and Hispanic peers in the share who hold a bachelor’s degrees (27% vs. 13%) or advanced degree (13% vs. 5%). These data reveal deep disparities in educational attainment across racial/ethnic lines, even among the youngest U.S. adult age cohort.
Though the above figure shows stark differences across combined racial/ethnic groups, there are likely within-group differences not captured by the relatively crude group classifications presented. While PIAAC remains a valuable data source, the international-focused survey can be limited in sample size, as there are only 2,100 millennials in the U.S. sample from which to disaggregate race/ethnicity and fine-grained educational attainment categories. Due to the relatively small cell size after data disaggregation, I elected to conceptualize and present the “underrepresented minority” group compared to peers who, on average, demonstrate higher levels of educational attainment.