NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Number of U.S. Adults with College Degrees Hits Historic High

February 27, 2012

College attainment has crept upward, slowly but steadily, says the Washington Post.

  • In 1947, just 5 percent of Americans age 25 and older held degrees from four-year colleges.
  • As recently as 1998, fewer than one-quarter of the adult population held college degrees.
  • In 2011, three in 10 adult Americans held bachelor's degrees, representing a historic high.

In 2009, President Obama set a national goal of reclaiming the world lead in college attainment.  But instead of gaining ground, the nation has fallen in global rank, slipping from 12th to 16th in the share of people ages 25 to 34 holding college degrees, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.  South Korea, Canada and Japan are the world leaders.

But in terms of future earnings, education level matters less these days than in previous generations, and field of study matters more.

  • Census data show that an associate's degree in engineering or computers is worth as much or more, on average, than a bachelor's in education or the liberal arts.
  • An associate's degree in engineering yielded $4,257 in monthly earnings in 2009, compared with $4,000 for a bachelor's in the liberal arts and $3,417 for a bachelor's in education.
  • A two-year degree in computers fetched $4,000 a month, the same median earnings as a four-year degree in the humanities.

Even a vocational certificate, a credential that generally requires months -- not years -- of school, can yield more future earnings than a bachelor's degree in a low-paying field.  Employees with construction certificates earned $4,904 a month in 2009, better than the median pay for a bachelor's in the humanities.

Although certain fields pay well at any education level, the data suggest that going to school remains a shrewd investment.

  • Median monthly pay for a professional degree reached $11,927 in 2009.
  • That was more than twice the monthly pay for someone with a bachelor's degree: $5,445.
  • By contrast, a high school diploma was worth $3,179 a month, and an elementary school education yielded $2,136 a month.

Source: Daniel de Vise, "Number of U.S. Adults with College Degrees Hits Historic High," Washington Post, February 23, 2012.

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