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Young adults are earning college degrees at a record rate. Why?

More adults might be completing college degrees because it’s been so hard for young people to find jobs during difficult economic times. But the rise is also part of a historical trend.

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A student blows bubbles as she marches into her commencement ceremony. Students from the College of Arts, Sciences and Engineering at the University of Rochester graduate at the Eastman Quadrangle in the rain in Rochester, N.Y., in May 2011. More young people than ever are attending college.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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The portion of young adults in the United States who have completed a four-year college degree hit a record high in 2012. A full third of 25-to-29-year-olds now hold degrees.

Ninety percent have completed high school or an equivalent credential, and 63 percent have done some college course work – both peak rates as well.

Progress in “educational attainment ... has a lot of implications, both for the wealth and well-being of the young adults themselves ... and [for] the productivity of the workforce and future economic growth,” says Richard Fry, a senior research associate at the Pew Research Center and coauthor of its new report on the subject.

For years, the idea has been growing that college is as necessary as high school was 40 years ago. In 2010, 75 percent of Americans said college was very important, compared with just 36 percent in 1978, the report notes.

President Obama has set a goal for the US to lead the world by 2020 in the percentage of young people earning college degrees or postsecondary certificates.

The increases in the Pew report indicate a “rather slow climb” that would need to accelerate to meet the president’s goal, says Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The rate of young adults earning a bachelor’s degree – 33 percent – is up five percentage points since 2006, perhaps in part because it’s been so hard for young people to find jobs during difficult economic times.

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