Number of Adults With College Degrees At All-Time High

Despite a down economy and the increasing cost of tuition, U.S. census officials reported that an all-time high of more than 30% of adult Americans had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2011. That’s an increase of more than 4% from 2001, according to a U.S. Census Bureau press release. The increase is a continuation of a long-standing trend. Only 5% of Americans 25 and older held bachelor’s degrees from four-year schools in 1947, and less than one-quarter of adults held a degree in 1998, according to the Washington Post. The percentage of Hispanics and African Americans who make up the country’s degree-holding population has increased as well. Since 2001, the percentage of Hispanic degree holders increased from 4.4% to 6.1%, and African Americans increased from 6.7% to 7.6%.

"This is an important milestone in our history," Robert Groves, U.S. Census Bureau director, said in the statement. "For many people, education is a sure path to a prosperous life. The more education people have, the more likely they are to have a job and earn more money, particularly for individuals who hold a bachelor’s degree."

The census data shows that people with a bachelor’s degree had a lower rate of unemployment than those with less education in every month from January 2008 to December 2010, which includes all but one month of the recent recession. According to the Census Bureau’s Educational Attainment in the United States study from 2009, the unemployment rate for high school dropouts reached a high of 17.9% in February 2012, while the unemployment rate for people with a bachelor’s degree was 5.9%. The findings suggest the importance of having a college degree, especially during tough economic times.

But although having a degree is helpful, not all degrees are created (financially) equal. Another study, What It’s Worth: Field of Training and Economic Status in 2009, states that higher levels of educational attainment are generally tied to greater earnings. Those who earned a professional degree were paid a median salary of $11,927 per month, while bachelor’s degree holders received $5,455. But there are some exceptions to this rule. For example, an associate degree in engineering yielded an average monthly pay of $4,800, while those who earned a bachelor’s degree in education were paid $3,800, the study found. A study from Georgetown University, released on Jan. 4, delves further into the difference between degree choice and salary. No matter the level of education attained, women earned less than men. At the advanced degree level, women’s median salary per month was $5,000, while men’s were $6,667.

For a closer look at how the type and level of a degree can affect earnings and unemployment, check out our post here.

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