Research by Public Agenda, Prepared for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation


In high school, the vast majority of young Americans say they want to go to college, but in the end, only 4 in 10 earn a credential by the time they are 35.1 That’s a problem for the young people themselves—workers without credentials beyond high school earn less and are more likely to be unemployed.2 It’s also a problem for the country as a whole. Policymakers in business, government, and education say the United States needs more college-educated workers to remain internationally competitive.3 President Obama, for one, has recommended that all students complete at least one year of education beyond high school.4

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As a result, there has been a concerted effort by leaders in federal, state, and local government, in higher education, and among foundations and policy organizations to increase college completion rates. We have better data, research, and analysis to shape solutions than were available several years ago. Across the country, elected officials, institutional leaders, faculty, K–12 educators, and other key groups are looking at new approaches aimed at getting more young Americans to enter postsecondary programs and complete them successfully.

The voices of young Americans themselves are sometimes muted in this crucial work. One Degree of Separation summarizes a piece of public opinion research designed to explore the perspective of a specific group of young Americans: those aged 26 to 34. We believe this group has especially important testimony to offer.

By this age, most people are mature enough to think critically and realistically about the circumstances and decisions that are shaping their lives. Most people have begun to work, and young Americans in this group have set out to find jobs and build careers in one of the worst labor markets since the Great Depression. We know from previous research that most of these young people were encouraged to go to college by parents, teachers, and others.5 At least in theory, they have also been able to benefit from some of the changes being implemented to increase college access and completion, such as improved financial aid policies and greater choice of postsecondary degree and certification programs, not to mention increased public discussion about the value of a higher education credential.

One Degree of Separation reports findings from a national random sample survey of more than 600 young Americans, asking them for their views on jobs, college, and their own economic prospects. The survey was designed to shed light on questions such as these:

  • How do young Americans think about college and jobs as they become working-age adults and begin building their lives and careers?
  • What circumstances shape and guide their decisions about college and jobs?
  • Given the demonstrable benefits of getting a degree, what obstacles keep so many of them from accomplishing that goal?
  • And in a tougher, more confusing economy for everyone, how are the nation’s young people faring? Are they optimistic that they can build economically secure lives? Do they see getting a higher education credential as the key to that security?

Containing more than 100 questions, the study compares and contrasts the perspectives of young people who complete degrees in four-year, two-year, and technical certification programs to those of high school graduates who either never attended college or left before completing their course of study.6

A Trifecta of Barriers

Americans of all ages have been daunted by today’s tough economy, and the country’s traditional optimism has been shaken. Most people these days voice some concern about maintaining their standard of living. Half of Americans say they are worried that one of their family’s major wage earners may become unemployed.6

But while anxiety about the economy is common enough, the results we report here illustrate a jarring divide between the experiences and attitudes of high school graduates in the workplace and those of young people who go on to complete a degree after high school.Even more troubling, the research suggests that young Americans who don’t complete degrees beyond high school face three mutually reinforcing hurdles—some well-known and others less so.

  • First, One Degree of Separation confirms, as other studies have shown, that most young people without higher education credentials have been economically disadvantaged from the get-go—they typically come from poorer, less well-educated families.
  • Second, many lack basic knowledge about the higher education system and the expectations and demands of employers.
  • Third, many are not convinced that getting a college degree will pay off for them, especially if they need to borrow money to do so. Many seem to envision an alternative non-college career path that may or may not exist in the coming years.

On a more positive note, most young Americans display an admirable spunk about finding their way in the workforce, and, whether they have a degree or not, they certainly haven’t given up on themselves or their futures. Many offer thoughtful, reasoned decisions on whether or not to pursue higher education. The question is whether their optimism and flexibility—and their beliefs about the worth of a college degree—will prove to be an advantage, or whether their optimism will blind them to the realities of the job market down the road.

In the following pages, we lay out the key results from the survey. While they shed new light on the perspectives of young adults in today’s workforce, they also raise questions. For leaders focused on this issue, the most important may be what kind of options and support our society really envisions for young people who do not complete two-year or four-year college programs. This group of young adults may not fully understand the shifting patterns and demands of the workplace, but experts and leaders in business, government, and education are not necessarily in full agreement either.

In some respects, this study suggests that policymakers and educators need to intensify research and debate about what we really mean by “completing college.” We also need to know more about the extent to which employers and educators agree on what skills and post-secondary options are needed for getting and holding on to good jobs.

In the conclusion, we raise some additional questions for leaders in government, higher education, and business, and for the growing numbers of organizations working to make college completion achievable for any young American willing to strive for it.

[1] Public Agenda’s calculations based on Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS). Available from:

[2] The unemployment rate for those with a high school diploma is more than twice that of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher. And those with a bachelor’s degree earn almost twice as much money as those with only a high school diploma. See the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Back to College” (September 2010). Retrieved May 2, 2011, from

[3] See the Council of Economic Advisors, “Preparing the Workers of Today for the Jobs of Tomorrow” (July 2009), and the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, “Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018” (June 2010).

[4] White House Press Release (July 14, 2009). Retrieved on May 2, 2011, from:

[5] Public Agenda, “Life after High School: Young People Talk about Their Hopes and Prospects” (2004).

[6] Newsweek Poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, September 29-30, 2010, available at