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.


We recently wrapped up the crowdfunding campaign for our ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project, and it was a smashing success. About 10,364 readers pitched in with donations averaging $45, and together they contributed about $467,374 toward our $500,000 goal.

That's amazing. We still have donations from letters we sent in the mail coming back to us, so we're on pace to hit—if not exceed—that goal. Thank you so much. We'll keep you posted here as the project ramps up, and you can join the hundreds of readers who have alerted us to corruption to dig into.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.


Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.