Posted by: Josh Lehner | August 2, 2016

Educational Attainment by Generation, Graph of the Week

It’s well documented that college graduates overall have better labor market outcomes than those without degrees. They participate in the labor force more, have a lower unemployment rate and earn higher wages. And in the context of job polarization, a college degree is the surest path to one of those high-wage jobs. In fact, if you dig into the Oregon Employment Department’s latest occupational projections, 79% of the growth in high-wage jobs requires a college degree for an entry-level candidate. If you want to be a competitive applicant for the high-wage jobs, a full 90% of the expected growth requires at least a Bachelor’s degree.

While our office is working on updating some trends and outcomes in higher education — it’s been more than three years since our report on education and student debt in Oregon — I wanted to share some more life cycle work I’ve been doing. This compares trends over one’s lifetime but also across generations or birth cohorts in the state. Previously we looked at how younger generations in Oregon spend more on housing than previous generations did at the same point in their life cycle.

How you read this graph is that each colored line represents an age or birth cohort. These are really 5 year groups, so the 1960 cohort is people born between 1958 and 1962, for example. As you move from left to right, the graph shows the share of the population with a Bachelor’s degree or more across the state. The higher the line the larger the share with a college degree.


The good upshot is educational attainment in Oregon continues to increase. Millennials are, and continue to be on track, to be the best educated generation on record. This is due to the continued increase in the share of young adults enrolling in school. Some of this increase is due to societal trends but some is influenced by the business cycle as job opportunities dry up during recessions, thus reducing the opportunity cost of attending college. However attainment in Oregon also increases due to migration, which disproportionately consists of those with college degrees in recent decades. All told, attainment is increasing with each successive generation which bodes well for future economic growth.

The one exception is the 1960 cohort (gray line). Here the share of the population with a college degree is lower than the 1950 cohort (green line) at every point in the life cycle. I honestly am not sure what is going on here. The national figures show educational attainment flattening with a small dip, but not this large of an effect as seen in the Oregon data. This decline is visible in the published Census 2000 tables, so it’s not just a sample size issue of examining the microdata either.

My initial guess would it has something to do with the timing and the business cycle. The 1950 cohort came of age in the 1970s; a time when Oregon was booming and there was a massive wave of domestic inmigration to the state. The 1960 cohort came of age in the 1980s. Of course in Oregon the 1980s were a much darker economic period and the state actually lost population due to the severity of the early 1980s recession. I suspect this difference is driving these results, however I am not 100% certain here and it’s hard to tell based on the data. Even so, the fact that the college degree gap between the 1950 and 1960 cohort in Oregon has persisted ever since is rather fascinating.

Stay tuned for our higher education update in the coming weeks.



  1. Here’s another guess why the 1960 cohort has a lower share of college grads than the 1950 cohort. Unlike our older siblings in the baby boom generation, those of us in the 1960 cohort didn’t have the Vietnam War as the alternative to staying in college.

    It is also interesting that my 1960 cohort shows a decline in college grads between age 45 and 50. Probably sampling error in the ACS. The other possibilities include some of us misrepresenting our educational attainment in 2005, or forgetting that we had a degree in 2010. I’d prefer to think it is sampling error.

    • Thanks Charles. Yes, that makes sense for the Vietnam influence. Either stay in school or possibly go to war. (I was wondering about GI bill and the like but that was a bit earlier of course.) As for the sampling error, yes that decline reverses itself if you extend it out. The 1960 cohort is 54 years old in the 2014 data which isn’t shown. However the college degree share jumps back up to 27-28% or so.

  2. About yesterday’s post on educational attainment by generation:

    You write about the (striking) anomaly of the “1960 cohort” that came of age during the slower-Oregon-growth years of the 1980s having consistently lower educational attainment than the “1950 cohort” that came of age during the booming 1970s.

    In light of the longstanding inverse correlation between economic growth and college enrollment, one might expect – all other things being equal – the opposite result, i.e., that the 1950 cohort wouldn’t have needed a college degree to get a job under seller’s labor market conditions in the ‘70s, whereas the 1960 cohort would have had to earn a college degree to get a job under buyer’s labor market conditions in the ‘80s. (Not even counting the secular trend of ever-increasing educational attainment by all the other generations.)

    You point out, however. that all other things weren’t equal — that there was net in-migration to Oregon in the ‘70s and net out-migration in the ‘80s. For net migration to have accounted for the unexpected flip in levels of educational attainment between the two cohorts, wouldn’t it have had to be the case that the migrants into Oregon in the ‘70s already had, or quickly sought and received, college degrees; and that the migrants out of Oregon in the ‘80s were those who didn’t have, or couldn’t afford to earn, a college degree?

    Furthermore, if the in-migrants of the ‘70s stayed here, and the out-migrants of the ‘80s stayed away, that might account for the persistence over time of the flipped educational attainment levels of the two cohorts.

    This would be hard to prove, though. Maybe something in Oregon’s community college and public university enrollment figures from those days (assuming they even still exist) on in-state versus out-of-state students could shed a little light….

    Anyway, thanks for all the posts. For a newcomer to the state, they are very helpful & interesting.



    Kevin Riper
    Assistant City Manager





    • Thanks Kevin. I think that does make sense for an explanation. But it’s really just hard to believe that it has persisted for 30-40 years. We know migrants have higher educational attainment than the overall population. So 1970s influx had more degrees and 1980s losses also had more degrees. But that large of a gap is a bit confounding. Again, the U.S. shows a small step down in the share of college graduates but nothing as large as what we see in the Oregon data. Hmm…

  3. […] In fact it looks downright mundane. A growing population with an increasing share of retirees, and rising rates of educational attainment means we need more workers serving these […]

  4. […] In fact it looks downright mundane. A growing population with an increasing share of retirees, and rising rates of educational attainment means we need more workers serving these […]

  5. […] few years ago we looked at educational attainment across generations here in Oregon. What it showed is that educational attainment is increasing over time. That is, […]

  6. […] few years ago we looked at educational attainment across generations here in Oregon. What it showed is that educational attainment is increasing over time. That is, […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: