How Many Americans Have a College Degree?

How Many Americans Have a College Degree?
portrait of Jessica Bryant
By Jessica Bryant

Published on July 1, 2021

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As the popularity and importance of college have increased over the last several decades, so has the number of Americans with college degrees.

Nearly 94 million Americans ages 25 and over, which is about 42% of the total U.S. population in that age demographic, had an associate, bachelor's, graduate, or professional degree, according to U.S. Census Bureau's most recent data.

In 1940, when the census first asked questions about education attainment, less than 5% of adults 25 and over reported they'd earned a bachelor's degree or higher. In 2011, adults with college degrees of all types accounted for 36% of the population. This group has increased by more than five percentage points over the last decade.

Though the surge in degree-holding Americans over the last 70 years continues for now, a recent slump in enrollment at postsecondary institutions could slow this growth in years to come. Because of these slumps, caused by affordability issues and the COVID-19 pandemic, we can reasonably expect a dip in the percentage of degree holders in upcoming reports.

Breakdown of Educational Attainment in the U.S.

Of the nearly 225 million adults in the U.S., almost 94 million have earned some type of college degree. Below are details of the increasing educational attainment in the U.S. in 2019.

Educational Attainment by State

The following map depicts educational attainment in the U.S. by state, according to the most recent American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.

State

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 2019

The District of Columbia, Massachusetts, and Colorado have the highest percentages of adults with college degrees, all three with more than 50% of those 25 and over with an associate, bachelor's, graduate, or professional degree.

Each of these also fell within the top 10 states/districts with the highest rates of employment in the U.S. The District of Columbia had the highest employment rate in 2019, with about 71% of the population over the age of 16 in the labor force.

At the other end, West Virginia, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi had the lowest percentages of adults with college degrees. In each state, less than one-third of the adult population holds a degree in higher education. These states also had the lowest employment rates, with each falling under 60%.

Educational Attainment by Race/Ethnicity

There are clear disparities in the percentage of college degree-holders ages 25 and over among racial and ethnic groups in the U.S.

White Americans made up the overwhelming majority of those who hold college degrees in 2019, accounting for nearly three-quarters of the group. Black, Asian, Latino/a, and Native American individuals combined made up less than 30% of the population 25 and older who have earned a college degree.

This lack of equity in educational attainment has become increasingly concerning to experts because of its direct effects on employment and opportunities for people of color throughout the country.

Educational Attainment by Gender

Women accounted for the majority of college degree holders among Americans ages 25 and older in 2019.

As of 2019, statistics on educational attainment and employment show that women are now the majority of college-educated workers in the U.S. They recently caught up to men in the workforce despite having been the majority of college-educated adults for more than a decade.

The Link Between Educational Attainment and Employment

Increased educational attainment directly correlates to higher levels of employment. But in addition to better employment outcomes, individuals with college degrees are also more likely to earn better wages.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly salary of an individual with a bachelor's degree is 67% higher than the salary of an individual who’s attained a high school diploma.

So, if furthering your education is still something you’re not too sure about, keep in mind the increased opportunities for employment and higher wages it can bring.


Feature Image: Boston Globe / Contributor / Getty Images

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