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2012's 'good news' stories

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Graduates from Columbia University's School of Journalism cheer during the university's commencement ceremony in New York.

Keith Bedford/Reuters
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4. US youth: record levels of education... optimism rising

By Jina Moore/Correspondent

This year, record-high numbers of young people have college and high school educations, according to the Pew Research Center.

One-third of America's 25-to-29-year-olds hold a bachelor's degree, and 63 percent – another record – have completed at least some college. This year, like last year, 88 percent of young Americans have a high school diploma, and a record 90 percent have at least some high school education.

Even more significant, these are gains seen across all segments of the population.

"It has been the case for a long time that African-Americans and Hispanics on average are much less likely to complete those [educational] milestones than whites and Asians," says Richard Fry, senior economist at the Pew Research Center. In the 1990s, as demographers predicted the growth among those populations, overall educational attainment was expected to decline. That hasn't happened. "What we see looking at the latest Census Bureau data ... is that educational attainment is still rising."

Mr. Fry says there are three important things behind these numbers. Limited job opportunities make the classroom a more viable option than the workplace. Federal legislation known as No Child Left Behind demanded that high schools improve their graduation rates, and Fry says it's possible that the policy has driven some of this change. And it's clearer than ever that "there are significant returns on going to college" – even when stacked up next to debt.

Fry's latest numbers suggest that two-thirds of "newly minted bachelor's degree holders" borrowed money to go to school, and that debt averages $23,000. Meanwhile, Fry says, students with bachelor's degrees will earn $600,000 more than their high-school-only counterparts over a lifetime. (As any good student of student loan debt will tell you, a dollar today is worth more than a dollar 30 years from now – but those figures are adjusted to reflect today's dollar values.)

Kim Parker, associate director of Pew's Social & Demographic Trends project, says even this generation of debt-saddled, jobless students are optimistic about their future. Nearly 60 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds told Pew they don't have enough money to lead the kind of life they'd like, but they believe they will in the future – compared with only 41 percent in 2004.

The "boomerang effect" of a poor job market – young people moving back home with their parents and delaying marriage, economic independence, and other "milestones of adulthood," according to Ms. Parker – hasn't dampened their optimism. "There doesn't seem to be a big sense of panic about that," she says. "Just a new sense of normal."

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