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The surprising truth about downward mobility in US higher education

Nearly 30 percent of American men age 25 to 34 aren't as well-educated as their parents.
Nearly 30 percent of American men age 25 to 34 aren't as well-educated as their parents.
Jens Schlueter
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

In most developed countries, education builds from generation to generation: Adults often have more education than their parents, and they expect their children will be better-educated still — or at least they expect their children won't slip behind.

But data released today from the OECD shows this isn't happening in the US nearly as much as it does elsewhere. America has more students falling behind their parents than most other developed countries. Almost 1 in 4 American adults age 25 to 34 has less education than his or her parents.

oecd economic mobility

In other words, the children of American college graduates aren't necessarily going on to earn college degrees themselves. Meanwhile, the percentage of 25- to 34-year-old Americans who are surpassing their parents' education levels is relatively low:

more education than their parents

This trend is particularly evident for men. Almost 30 percent of American men have less education than their parents; among women, just 17 percent are less-educated.

educational mobility by gender

Policymakers often worry that the US is lagging in earning college degrees. Most of the explanation for this trend is that other countries have ramped up their higher education systems since the 1960s and now educate a higher proportion of their students — not that the American system has gotten worse.

But these charts suggest that not only are other countries catching up more quickly, but also the US really is falling behind.