How are early Millennials faring in adulthood?

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It’s no secret that “selfie-stick wielding, ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians’-watching,” Millennials have gotten a bad rap. But has their stereotyped self-indulgence resulted in poor life outcomes? This new report from IES, Early Millennials: The Sophomore Class of 2002 a Decade Later, tracks a cohort of over 13,000 students who were high school sophomores in 2002. Over ten years, this cohort was surveyed three times about various life milestones, such as finishing school, starting a job, leaving home, getting married, and having children. Most respondents were twenty-six years old at the time of the last survey, in 2012.

Recall that this is the cohort that was just entering high school during the dot-com bubble of the late 90’s. They were sophomores during the September 11 terrorist attacks, and in their early twenties when the Great Recession hit in 2007. They also saw the cost of college increase exponentially during their entry into postsecondary education. The nearly three-hundred-page report is chock full of noteworthy findings. Here are a quick baker’s dozen:

  1. An astonishing 96 percent completed high school either through earning a diploma or through the GED or other equivalency;
  2. Eighty-four percent enrolled in postsecondary education; just one half had earned a postsecondary degree or certificate by 2012;
  3. One third had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher by 2012;
  4. Of the roughly one third who began at a two-year college, 47 percent earned a credential—of those, 30 percent received an associate’s degree or similar, and just 17 percent moved on to receive a bachelor’s or advanced degree;
  5. Those who started out at four-year colleges fared better: 72 percent earned a postsecondary credential—most of which were bachelor’s or advanced degrees (15 percent had left without any postsecondary credential);
  6. Eighty-two percent were employed, 11 percent were looking, and 7 percent were out of workforce;
  7. Thirty-five percent of bachelor’s degree recipients say they are working jobs that require a lesser degree (which is a type of underemployment);
  8. Twenty-eight percent were currently married, and one third had become parents as of 2012;
  9. Childbearing rates were inversely related to educational attainment: 70 percent of those without a high school credential and 53 percent of those who had only a high school education had children in 2012, compared with 13 percent of bachelor’s degree holders and 9 percent of masters or higher degree holders.
  10. Twenty-three percent were living with their parents (more common among males), and 23 percent were cohabiting with a partner (that’s up from 1 percent of cohabiters from a 1988 eighth-grade cohort);
  11. Among students with comparable socioeconomic and academic backgrounds, blacks, Hispanics and Asians had a similar likelihood of attaining various levels of education relative to their white peers;
  12. Sixty percent took out loans to pay for postsecondary education, and on average they borrowed a total of $30,000 for postsecondary education;
  13. And finally, forty percent of the cohort who grew up in families with low socio-economic status (SES) were in the lowest quarter of the SES distribution in 2012, yet roughly 60 percent had moved up the SES ladder into the middle half or highest quarter by age twenty-six.

It’s hard to draw firm conclusions about education from such a wide-ranging, deep dataset. Here’s one that we can all agree on, though: Even though most students eventually earn a high school degree or equivalent, and the majority also enter post-secondary education, just half eventually earned a postsecondary degree or certificate. That’s a remarkable college dropout rate. We know that we need to do a better job of both equipping high school graduates to succeed in college and of ensuring that non-college pathways are robust, relevant, and lucrative. Question is, are we doing it fast enough for Generation Z?

SOURCE: Xianglei Chen et al.,“Early Millennials: The Sophomore Class of 2002 a Decade Later,” National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences (June 2017).

Amber M. Northern, Ph.D.
Amber M. Northern, Ph.D. is the Senior Vice President for Research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.