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US: Gaining ground on post-secondary degree attainment, but is it enough?

In line with many other countries around the world, the United States is concerned about cultivating an educated population to ensure economic and social prosperity. Fundamental to this effort is the idea that a critical mass of the working population should hold a post-secondary degree. News out of the US this month indicates that progress is being made on this front, but there are also indications that more may need to be done to achieve key targets.

With regard to bachelor degrees, the US Census Bureau released figures on 23 February that showed that, for the first time, the proportion of the US population over age 25 holding at least a bachelor degree surpassed 30%. Specifically, the bureau’s Educational Attainment in the United States: 2011 data show that this figure stands at 30.4%, up from 26.2% a decade ago.

Overall, in 2011 there is clear progress in bachelor degree attainment across all major population sub-categories (e.g. by race and gender), but significant variations in performance are evident across these groups, as well. For example:

  • Amongst Hispanics over age 25, the bachelor degree attainment rate grew by 80% between 2001 and 2011, but much smaller (if still impressive) gains were seen over this period among blacks (+47%) and non-Hispanic whites (+24%).
  • Half of the US Asian population 25 years or older reports having at least a bachelor degree in 2011, as compared to 34% of non-Hispanic whites, 20% of blacks and 14% of Hispanics.
  • Women’s gains in attaining bachelor degrees over the last decade outpaced men’s significantly, at +37% and +23%, respectively. And in 2011 more women over age 25 held bachelor degrees (31 million) than men (30 million). Alas, women’s earnings are nowhere near on par with men’s, a discrepancy that may have much to do with the different fields in which men and women are educated and employed. For example, 30% of employed men with a bachelor degree or more reported working in management, business and financial occupations; in contrast, only 22% of women with the same profile reported employment in these fields.

With regard to two- and four-year degree attainment, findings released in March by the Lumina Foundation (a leading higher education research and philanthropic organisation in the United States) also register modest gains from 2009 to 2010. Lumina’s newest report on this subject, A Stronger Nation through Higher Education, notes that, at the current rate of growth, “only 79.8 million working-age Americans (46.5% of those aged 25-64) will hold degrees by 2025”. This falls short (by 23 million degree holders) of Lumina’s so-called “Big Goal”: to increase the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials to 60 percent by the year 2025. The quest to produce more degree holders in the United States clearly continues.

Lumina Foundation United States Census Bureau