Bachelor’s Degree Attainment Steadily Increasing, New Report Shows

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

The attainment of bachelor’s degrees has steadily risen in the past 15 years across virtually all groups and demographics, a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau shows.

The census report, using data from surveys conducted by the American Community Survey (ACS) in three non-overlapping five-year spans from 2005-09 to 2015-19, shows on a macro level how educational attainment across the country increased over the 15-year period, particularly among underrepresented groups.

Overall, the percentage of the population 25 years and older that holds at least a bachelor’s degree has increased by roughly 5 percentage points across the 15 years of surveys, from 27.5% in 2005-09 to 32.1% in 2015-19.

Courtney Brown, the vice president of impact and planning at the Lumina Foundation, said the results were welcomed and she expressed excitement about the overall positive trend depicted. 

“The more we can push out reports like this to show that the country is making progress, not enough progress, but we're making progress year after year,” she said.

Notably, respondents over the age of 25 identifying as Black, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander, and some other race all saw the percentage of people with bachelor’s degrees expand by 20% or more, the report noted.

Additionally, those over the age of 25 identifying as Hispanic or Latino, and those identifying as two or more races had bachelor’s degree attainment increase by 30% or more from the first survey to the most recent iteration.

While those increases are notable and significant, the report also found that respondents over the age of 25 from groups that already had relatively high levels of educational attainment — such as Asian, white, and non-Hispanic white — experienced greater percentage-point increases than race groups with lower rates of bachelor’s degree attainment in the first five year survey from 2005-09.

Those trends changed over the course of the surveys, though. Overall, racial groups with lower levels of attainment in the 2005-09 time period ultimately experienced higher levels of growth in attainment over the entire 15-year time period.

These findings show that gaps in bachelor’s degree attainment between race groups

improved over the 15-year period, a welcome and encouraging sign, Brown said, noting that work still remains to improve the attainment levels.

“It's not enough yet,” she said. “We need to continue to keep the gas pedal down and have really intentional focus” on continued improvement.

She attributed the increased attainment across the board to individual states taking notice and prioritizing the issue.

Since 2008, when the Lumina Foundation first started tracking education attainment levels nationally, 45 states have set attainment goals that the foundation considers to be high quality.

“Every one of those states as part of their goals has a goal toward closing equity gaps,” Brown added. “So they are focused on race and ethnicity. And this was basically unheard of when we first set the goal” of 60% of Americans holding a credential beyond high school by 2025.

While Lumina’s 60% target differs slightly from what the report tracked since Lumina is counting all postsecondary credentials, Brown said the report is significant because tracking bachelor's degrees is paramount, as countless studies have demonstrated the labor market outcomes for people that have bachelor's degrees is much greater.

A bachelor’s degree “protects somebody to go from job to job so much better than other credentials,” she said, as shown by the stratification across groups with varying levels of education attainment throughout the ongoing pandemic. 

A brief from the Congressional Research Service showed that throughout the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus, workers with lower levels of educational attainment experienced higher rates of unemployment. In April, the unemployment rate for workers with less than a high school diploma peaked at just over 21%, significantly higher than the peak for all other education levels.

The disparities widen when broken down by race, even for those with the same level of education. A report from the Economic Policy Institute showed that at every level of education, the Black unemployment rate is much higher than the white unemployment rate.

“This is where we want to make sure that we're closing racial equity gaps with bachelor's degrees,” Brown said. “It's not that some people should get associate's degrees and only white people should get bachelor's degrees. We need to close the equity gap in the bachelor's degrees.” 

The report also outlined how increases in attainment varied depending on county and region. In the first survey period from 2005-09, counties with higher attainment than the national average experienced greater gains than counties that began below the national average.

About half the counties that were below the national average in the first survey experienced significant increases in the share of the population with at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to more than three-quarters of counties that were above the national average in the same time period that experienced significant increases, according to the report. 

These county-level findings show the gap widening between counties below the national average in terms of bachelor’s degree attainment and those above the national average. 

When it comes to the regional data in the report, Brown said each area of the country tells a distinctly different story, and most of the findings coincide with demographic shifts playing out across the country.

Counties in the South, for instance, saw a slight increase in the population of those 25 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree, but had the slowest rate of growth over the 15-year period compared to counties in the other regions of the country.

“There's nothing particularly shocking in the regional breakdown here, but it's illuminating — and regions need to pay attention to this and strive to increase no matter where they are,” Brown said.

The report adds that while it uncovers several key findings, future analyses “could use these data to examine how demographic shifts, changing economies, and urban-rural divides relate to educational attainment.”


Publication Date: 2/25/2021

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