According to a New York Times report, federal education data shows that over the last few years have seen a surge in the number of Americans that have graduated from college. This surge represents a new high water mark in the number of Americans with a college degree. After more than two decades of slow college completion rates, which caused the U.S. to fall behind other countries, leading politicians from both parties, including President Obama, to bang higher education war drums.
The Times reports that last year, more than a third of Americans between the ages 25 to 29 had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. This is in comparison to 1995, when only 24.7 percent had completed as much colleges, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In 1975, the share was 21.9 percent. The number of two-year college degrees, master’s degrees and doctorates earned have also seen recent increases, which appear to be driven both by a sharp rise in college enrollment and by an improvement among colleges in graduating students.
College attendance has increased in the past decade partly because of the new types of jobs that have been created in the digital age, which have increased the wage gap between degree holders and everyone else. The recent recession, which pushed more workers of all ages to take shelter on college campuses while the job market was poor, has also played a role.
The attainment of bachelor’s degrees has risen much faster for young women in the past decade than for young men. It has also risen among young whites, blacks and Hispanics, though relatively little among Asians, who already had the highest rate of college completion. The share of people with a college degree also varies tremendously by state, with 48.1 percent of people ages 25 to 34 in Massachusetts holding a bachelor’s degree, but just 20.4 percent in Nevada, according to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a research and development center founded to improve management at colleges.
Despite the recent improvement, higher education experts emphasized that college completion rates were still distressingly low, with only about half of first-time college freshmen who enrolled in 2006 having graduated by 2012, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
The recent jump in college graduation mirrors similar increases in educational attainment during previous severe downturns, economists said. For example, the G.I. Bill created a second surge in educational investment after World War II, which also helped fuel the postwar economic boom. In those cases, however, education was free or very cheap; college today is not.
Cost may be one reason that college completion has not risen nearly as much for low-income students, many of whom take on large amounts of debt and often do not graduate. The share of 24-year-olds from low-income families who hold college degrees has remained relatively flat over the last several decades, Tom Mortenson, a higher education policy analyst with the newsletter Postsecondary Education Opportunity, told the Times.
According to Mortenson, low-income students are less likely to graduate from high school than more affluent students, less likely to enroll in college after high school and less likely to graduate from college after enrolling. Only about 1 out of 10 Americans whose parents were in the lowest income quartile held four-year college degrees by age 24 in 2011; the comparable share for people from the highest quartile was about 7 in 10.
Some of the recent increase in college completion has come among students who enroll in college, or return to it, at older ages, and experts say any future increases will probably need to come among this group as well, given its growth potential.
For-profit colleges — despite being more expensive and having lower completion rates than other colleges — are taking in many of these older and lower-income students. The increase in college degrees is likely to fuel a debate about the wisdom of having so many people flock to college, given high debt levels and stories of unemployed graduates who are stuck on their parents’ couches.
Many economists point out that college graduates have fared much better than their less-educated peers and argue that rising educational levels will help the economy in the long run. Since the recession began in December 2007, the number of Americans with bachelor’s degrees who have jobs has risen by 9 percent, while employment has fallen for everyone else.
The unemployment rate for graduates of four-year colleges between the ages of 25 and 34 was 3.3 percent in March, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For high school graduates in the same age group who had not attended college, it was 11.8 percent.
Today’s premium for college degrees is caused partly by increasing selectiveness among employers about whom they hire and screening based on education even for positions that do not require higher skills. But jobs themselves have changed, too, and more require the sophisticated levels of education and technical savvy that typically can only be achieved through a college degree.