Gen Xers Had High College Dropout Rates. Maybe It Was Due to . . .

A few years ago, a team of researchers published a paper documenting a decline in college completion rates between 1970 and 1990. A few days ago, a different team of researchers published a paper documenting a subsequent increase from 1990 to 2010. Neither team had a very persuasive explanation for this phenomenon, which prompted a reader to wonder if the culprit could be lead poisoning. I figured I was game to take a look, and it turns out the answer might be yes:

As usual, the lead levels are lagged 20 years. For example, kids who were born in 1950 went to college in 1970, so we want to compare lead levels in 1950 with college dropout rates in 1970.

This chart doesn’t prove anything, but it’s a surprisingly close fit. And lead is a perfectly plausible candidate since it’s known to reduce both academic performance and the ability to focus for extended periods. So in addition to all the other stuff lead is responsible for, it might also be responsible for an increase in college dropout rates among Gen Xers.


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