Failure to Launch

American post-secondary education caters to narrow elite while betraying the typical American.

Executive Summary

In the popular imagination, young Americans leave home to attend college, where they earn degrees that launch them into careers. The actual experience is radically different. For every young American on the idealized path, there are ten who never enroll in college or else fail to complete a degree. The “normal” path is to drop out of college; to remain close to home, unmarried, and without children; and to work a job that you don’t see as a career.

In partnership with YouGov, American Compass surveyed representative samples of 1,000 American parents with school age or recently graduated children (ages 12–30) and 1,000 American young adults (ages 18–30). The results provide a comprehensive picture of where young Americans actually are.

Americans in their mid-to-late 20s with outcomes near the median are:

  • college dropouts
  • unmarried and without children
  • living within 30 minutes of their parents
  • working in what they would characterize as jobs rather than careers

To one side, a small cohort of their peers, call them the Young Elite, has done quite well. These are the people who left home for colleges other than their state schools and completed their degrees. This path is the American culture’s standard, but it is rarely taken—less than 7% of the population has gone this route.

  • Three-quarters of Young Elites say they have careers.
  • Nearly half say they are “living the American dream.”

On the other side is a much larger cohort, call them the Dropouts and the Never Wents, who never enrolled in any post-secondary program, or else enrolled in one but failed to complete it.

  • Dropouts and Never Wents account for roughly half of all Young Americans.
  • Close to one-third are still living at home.
  • More than one-third are unemployed.
  • Only 10% say they have a career or are living the American dream.

The Young Elites, and the experienced professionals they mature into, dominate the national conversation about American education. They set the tone for broader conversations about America’s aspirations, but their perspectives are starkly atypical.

  • The Young Elite agree with the statement that “the public education system prepares someone like for success in life,” but others do not.
  • The Young Elite prefer a pathway offering “the best possible career options, far from home,” while all other groups prefer one that offers “good career options close to home.”

Part I: Where Are Young Americans?

For the Americans who write and read policy papers, the “college tour” is an assumed rite of passage. Then comes application season, admissions season, the tearful goodbye at the dorm, the proud photos at commencement four years later, and the start of a career in some city somewhere. If you followed that path, or you expect your children to, be aware that it is one trod by fewer than one in 20 young Americans. Even for families where both parents hold graduate degrees, the more likely outcome for their child is dropping out.

Most Americans don’t earn a degree at all. Most who enroll stay close to home, and most enroll at their state university. Most say they are working in a job, not a career.

I.A The Early Twenties

To be sure, most young Americans are enrolled in post-secondary education in their early twenties. Some 9% have already completed a college degree, 13% have already dropped out, and 25% never went, but 53% are actively pursuing further education.

Most currently enrolled students are pursuing a bachelor’s degree. Three-quarters attend a four-year college or university, whereas 15% attend a two-year college and just 6% are enrolled in a noncollege training or certification program.

For the most part, these students are not lounging on the quads of their liberal arts college of choice. Going to college usually means attending an institution close to home, often while still living at home. More than a third of enrolled students in their early 20s are living at home and another 29% are at schools within an hour of home.

Most students opt for a low-cost public institution over a private or out-of-state, public school. In addition to the 15% at community colleges, 57% of those at four-year schools are at their in-state, public option.

I.B Mid-to-Late Twenties  

By their mid-to-late 20s, most Americans are done with their educations. Only 20% are enrolled at any institution and only about a quarter of the rest say they expect to pursue further study. Of course, many of those enrolled will still drop out and many who expect to go back to school never will.

So, while there is no “typical” young American, much can be said about those near the middle of the statistical distributions for various outcomes, and about the correlations between their trajectories through the education system and their living situations.

For instance, most Americans are unmarried in their mid-to-late 20s, but those who have completed a post-secondary degree are nearly twice as likely to be married as those who never went to college. Conversely, while most Americans have not yet had children by their mid-to-late 20s, those without post-secondary degrees are nearly twice as likely to be parents as those who have graduated.

Most young Americans remain close to home, but a college degree may often serve as a “ticket out of town.” Overall, more than quarter of Americans in their-mid-to-late 20s still live at home, another two-fifths live within an hour of home, and a final third live more than an hour from home. But those with college degrees are twice as likely (43%) to live far from home as those without (22%), and those who attended college more than five hours from home are nearly four times as likely to live that far away now as those who attended college within an hour of home.

Achievement of a post-secondary credential also correlates with more and better employment. Among Americans in their mid-to-late 20s not currently enrolled in higher education, 68% are employed, but that ranges from 79% for those who have completed a college degree to 58% for those who never went. Even more striking, 52% of those with college degrees describe their work as a “career” rather than a “job,” whereas just 11–23% of others describe their work as a “career.”

Part II: Young American Archetypes

In understanding the experiences of young Americans, it is helpful, though of course oversimplifying, to think in terms of the archetypes within which they mostly fall. Here, we analyze them in four groups:

  • “Never Wents” (23% of Americans aged 23–30) never enrolled in any program of post-secondary education or training.
  • “Dropouts” (26% of Americans aged 23–30) are no longer enrolled in any education program and failed to complete the higher level of post-secondary education or training in which they enrolled.
  • “Typical Graduates” (24% of Americans aged 23–30) completed two- or four-year degrees at in-state public schools or other schools within one hour of home, and are no longer enrolled in any education program. 
  • “Young Elites” (7% of Americans aged 23–30) completed four-year degrees at schools more than one hour from home and not their in-state public school and hold a degree that is required for or relevant to their work, or completed four-year degrees and are now enrolled in graduate school.

These archetypes do not include everyone—for instance, those who attended two-year programs far from home, or those completing certain types of non-degree certification programs—but they represent the vast majority of young people and their most common experiences. 

II.A Outcomes

Attitudes about the success of the education system map neatly onto experiences therein. For instance, most parents of Young Elites and Typical Graduates agree that “the public education system prepares someone like [their child] for success in life,” whereas parents of Dropouts and Never Wents do not. For the young people themselves, their own personal success maps neatly onto their belief that the education system prepares them for success. Only those of the most stereotypically successful archetype, the Young Elites, believe that the system prepares people like them well. Majorities of Dropouts and Never Wents disagree.

Young Elites also follow a distinctive pathway after graduation, especially as compared to those who never graduate. Typical Graduates occupy a middle ground.

But in the case of family formation, Young Elites and Typical Graduates have more in common. Both are relatively more likely to be married and to delay childbearing. Compared to Never Wents, Young Elites are twice as likely to be married but four times less likely to have children.

Nearly all Young Elites are employed, while that share falls to barely over half for Never Wents. Typical Graduates stand halfway between the Young Elites and Dropouts. But ask those who are employed whether they would describe their work as a “career” versus a “job” and the differences appear starker. Three-quarters of Young Elites say they are working in careers, compared to just over half of Typical Graduates and less than a quarter of Dropouts and Never Wents. Young Elites are only 7% of the population, but they represent a fifth of those who say they have “careers.”

II.B Attitudes

Despite the differences in employment outcomes, Young Elites and Typical Graduates are similarly likely to report that they are “living the American Dream”—though in both cases they are more likely to say they are “getting by, but don’t have the life they want.” Still, the roughly 40% in each group who are most satisfied with their lives contrasts sharply with the very small share who say they are living the American Dream among Dropouts and Never Wents.

Young Elites appear to have a different definition of the “American dream.” Whereas those who say they have a career are five times more likely to report that they are living the American dream than those who say they have a job (42% with careers are “living the American dream” versus 7% with jobs), for Typical Graduates, the career-versus-job distinction appears not to matter much at all (36% with careers are “living the American Dream” versus 27% with jobs).

As the differences in perception of the American dream suggest, Young Elites appear to have a value set distinctive from most other cohorts of young Americans. We asked survey respondents to make two tradeoffs.

First: In thinking about the type of educational program that [you/your child] pursued, or could pursue, after completing high school, which would you prefer: one that offers the best possible career options but was far from home, or one that offers good career options close to home?

Parents of Young Elites chose the “far from home” option by almost two-to-one, while all other cohorts preferred the “close to home” option. Among Young Elites themselves the divide was even starker: 85% chose “far from home,” while among all other cohorts “close to home” was preferred.

Of course, in a pluralistic society, people are free to set their own priorities. Problems arise, though, when a group with atypical priorities sets them for the nation.

About the Data

Sample of Parents

The parent portion of the American Compass Failing on Purpose Survey was conducted by YouGov between November 1–9, 2021, with a representative sample of 1,000 parents of children ages 12­–30 living in the United States. YouGov interviewed 1,048 parents of children 12–30 years old, who were then matched down to a sample of 1,000 to produce the final dataset. The respondents were matched to a sampling frame on gender, age, race, and education. The frame was constructed by stratified sampling from the full 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) one-year sample with selection within strata by weighted sampling with replacements (using the person weights on the public use file). The matched cases were weighted to the sampling frame using propensity scores. The matched cases and the frame were combined and a logistic regression was estimated for inclusion in the frame. The propensity score function included age, gender, race/ethnicity, years of education, and region. The propensity scores were grouped into deciles of the estimated propensity score in the frame and post-stratified according to these deciles. The weights were then post-stratified on 2016 and 2020 presidential vote choice, and a four-way stratification of gender, age (four categories), race (four categories), and education (four categories), to produce the final weight.

Respondents were instructed: 

This survey is about the American education system. It asks American parents to share their opinions about public education and describe the experiences of their children.

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed extraordinary financial, logistical, and emotional constraints on families, students, and schools. In answering these questions, please think about the education system in general and without a pandemic—for instance, how it was before the pandemic struck or how you expect it to be once the pandemic has ended. 

Sample of Young Adults

The young adult portion of the American Compass Failing on Purpose Survey was conducted by YouGov between November 1–11, 2021, with a representative sample of 1,000 young adults between the ages of 18 and 30. YouGov interviewed 1,030 respondents, 18–30 years old, who were then matched down to a sample of 1,000 to produce the final dataset. The respondents were matched to a sampling frame on gender, age, race, education, and region. The frame was constructed by stratified sampling of age 28–80 of the full 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) one-year sample with selection within strata by weighted sampling with replacements (using the person weights on the public use file). The matched cases were weighted to the sampling frame using propensity scores. The matched cases and the frame were combined and a logistic regression was estimated for inclusion in the frame. The propensity score function included age, gender, race/ethnicity, years of education, and region. The propensity scores were grouped into deciles of the estimated propensity score in the frame and post-stratified according to these deciles. The weights were then post-stratified on a four-way stratification of gender, age (three categories), race (four categories), and education (four categories), to produce the final weight.

Respondents were instructed:

This survey is about the American education system. It asks young Americans to share their opinions about public education and describe their own educational experience.

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed extraordinary financial, logistical, and emotional constraints on families, students, and schools. In answering these questions, please think about the education system in general and without a pandemic—for instance, how it was before the pandemic struck or how you expect it to be once the pandemic has ended.

Combined Sample

Both young adults and parents of (other) young adults were surveyed to compare their attitudes about the education system. For purposes of creating the largest possible sample of young adult experiences, responses from young adults and responses from parents about young-adult children are combined where parallel questions were asked (e.g., “What is the highest level of formal education that you have attained?” for the young adults and “What is the highest level of formal education that your child has attained so far?” for the parents of young adults). Where a question was asked of only one group or the other, only that sample is included in the analysis. Relevant samples and question wording are provided in the charts.

Demographic Variables

“Education status” is defined by enrollment status, enrollment history, and educational attainment of a young adult or parent’s young-adult child (age 19–30):

  • “Currently Enrolled” (N=404 [266 young adults and 138 parents of young adults]): Currently enrolled in a post-secondary education program, such as a two- or four-year college or training program.
  • “Completed” (N=551 [342 young adults and 209 parents of young adults]): Has enrolled in and completed a post-secondary education program and holds a post-secondary credential (i.e., a credential beyond a high-school diploma).
  • “Dropped Out” (N=369 [185 young adults and 184 parents of young adults]): Has enrolled in a post-secondary education program but does not hold a post-secondary credential.
  • “Never Went” (N=345 [205 young adults and 140 parents of young adults]): Has never enrolled in a post-secondary education program.

Graduate students are classified as either “Currently Enrolled” or “Completed” depending on the analysis. Please see notes in individual charts for the particular classification.

Young Americans in their mid-to-late 20s (age 23­–30) are classified by “Archetypes” that do not include all respondents, but represent the majority of them. Archetypes are defined by a combination of a young adult’s education status, the distance of their post-secondary institution from home, and the relevance of their degree to their work.

  • “Young Elite” (N=93 [58 young adults and 35 parents of young adults]): Completed four-year degrees at schools more than one hour from home, did not attend their in-state public university, and now either hold a degree that is required for or relevant to their work or are enrolled in graduate school.
  • “Typical Graduate” (N=340 [217 young adults and 123 parents of young adults]): completed two- or four-year degrees at in-state public schools or other schools within one hour of home, and are no longer enrolled in any education program.
  •  “Dropout” (N=313 [161 young adults and 152 parents of young adults]): No longer enrolled in any education program and failed to complete the highest level of post-secondary education or training in which they enrolled.
  • “Never Went” (N=253 [147 young adults and 106 parents of young adults]): Never enrolled in any program of post-secondary education or training.
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