U.S. Bachelor Degree Rate Passes Milestone

More than 30 percent of American adults hold bachelor’s degrees, a first in the nation’s history, and women are on the brink of surpassing men in educational attainment, the Census Bureau reported on Thursday.

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The figures reflect an increase in the share of the population going to college that began in the mid-1990s, after a relatively stagnant period that began in the 1970s. They show significant gains in all demographic groups, but blacks and Latinos not only continue to trail far behind whites, the gap has also widened in the last decade.

As of last March, 30.4 percent of people over age 25 in the United States held at least a bachelor’s degree, and 10.9 percent held a graduate degree, up from 26.2 percent and 8.7 percent 10 years earlier.

For many years, colleges have enrolled and graduated more women than men, and a historic male advantage in higher education has nearly been erased. In 2001, men held a 3.9 percentage-point lead in bachelor’s degrees and 2.6 percentage points in graduate degrees; by last year, both gaps were down to 0.7 percent.

Among Hispanics, the share of adults holding bachelor’s degrees grew from 11.1 percent in 2001 to 14.1 percent last year, and among blacks it climbed from 15.7 percent to 19.9 percent. But the distinction rose even faster among non-Hispanic whites, from 28.7 percent to 34 percent.

Asian-Americans remain the nation’s best-educated racial group, with 50.3 percent having bachelor’s degrees, and 19.5 percent holding graduate degrees.

The figures come from the Census Bureau’s annual Current Population Survey, and were released along with a series of reports taken from another ongoing canvass, the American Community Survey. One of those, examining major fields of study, shows that taken together, engineering and science are the most common areas for bachelor’s degrees, representing 34.9 percent of the total.

The persistence of men in those fields is waning, a significant trend given that engineers and people with science backgrounds tend to be in high demand, and have above-average incomes. Among college graduates 65 or older, only 23 percent of those with degrees in science or engineering majors are women; among people 40 to 64, the proportion of women rises to 36 percent; among those 25 to 39, 45.9 percent are women.

The same report also found that engineers and science majors are most heavily concentrated on the East and West Coasts, with the highest percentages in the District of Columbia, California, Washington and Maryland, and the lowest in Southern and Plains states.

By RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA
Published: February 23, 2012

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