A college degree is often seen as the foundation for future success, and for a growing number of Americans, it is now a basic part of their resumes.
In March 2011, for the first time ever, more than 30 percent of U.S. adults 25 and older had at least a bachelor's degree, the U.S. Census Bureau reports. As recently as 1998, less than a quarter of people this age had this level of education. And back in 1947, the rate was only 5 percent. Overall, the increase in the proportion of the population with a bachelor's degree or higher went from 26.2 percent in 2001 to 30.4 percent in 2011.
“This is an important milestone in our history,” says Robert Groves, director of the Census Bureau. “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.”
Much of the growth appears to have occurred within minority segments. According to the Census figures, from 2001 to 2011, the number of Hispanics with a bachelor's or higher education increased 80 percent from 2.1 million to 3.8 million, and the percentage of Hispanics with a bachelor's or higher education increased from 11.1 percent in 2001 to 14.1 percent in 2011. Over the same period, the number of blacks with a bachelor’s degree or more grew by 47 percent. The number of Asians with this level of education increased by 28 percent, and the number of non-Hispanic whites increased 24 percent.
In terms of advanced degrees (those above a bachelor’s), 11 percent of the population, or 22 million people, fall into this category, including 16 million with master’s and 6 million with professional or doctoral degrees. The number with advanced degrees increased 40 percent from 2001 to 2011.
According to previous Census data, higher levels of educational attainment are associated with higher earnings. In 2009, the average monthly earnings for adults with a professional degree who worked full time were $11,927; the corresponding figure for bachelor's degree recipients was $5,455. Yet, one with lower levels of attainment may very well have higher earnings than those with higher levels, provided their degree is in a technical field. For instance, adults with an associate's degree in engineering earned an average of $4,800 per month, while bachelor's holders in education earned $3,800.