The Percentage of Americans with College Degrees in 2023
August 12, 2023
What percentage of Americans go to college? Since the great postwar boom in university enrollments of the 1950s-60s, Americans have persistently associated college education with social mobility. The popularity of college explains how the percentage of Americans with college degrees has increased in recent years. A greater percentage of Americans obtained degrees across degree types in 2021 when compared to 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s educational attainment data. The number of people with a bachelor’s degree or higher increased by 7.5 percentage points in this time frame. And the increase in graduate degree holders was even more dramatic, rising by about 50%. In all, close to 44.4% of people 25 and older now have some type of college degree.
Certainly, the recent data is reassuring considering the disruptions of the Covid pandemic in the realm of higher education. It demonstrates that universities have weathered economic uncertainty, the trials of remote learning, and fears about the broader education pipeline. In the Census Bureau’s most recent 2022 findings, the percentage of people with a bachelor’s degree or higher remained stable from the previous year at around 37.7%. Americans are still prioritizing college and doing so in record numbers. When accounting for children, the percentage of Americans with college degrees is at a healthy 31.3%. That percentage translates to more than 104 million Americans with degrees.
For the full breakdown of the most recent data, the Census Bureau has prepared this handy table summarizing its results. It usefully breaks down its results by state, showcasing the wide variety of educational attainment standards across the nation. Additionally, this article summarizes the data highlights and discusses what has made getting a degree an enduringly popular American dream.
Why is the Percentage of Americans with College Degrees Important?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, people currently enrolled in college or planning to attend agree on the importance of a college degree. But even more significantly, most Americans view college as equally or more important than they did two decades ago. These were the findings of a survey summarized in a recent Gallup article analyzing Americans’ views on the importance of a college degree now vs. 20 years ago. In that study, only 26% of respondents surveyed considered a college degree less important now compared to 20 years ago.
The perception of the use-value of a college education is far from a figment of the national imagination. Employment prospects of college graduates are markedly different from those who only have a high school degree. The Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities (APLU) has summarized the various advantages that college-degree holders enjoy. Drawing on the research of economists, the APLU describes how a degree improves graduates’ employment and earnings potential. College graduates are 50% less likely to be unemployed compared to those who only have a high school degree.
Those who pass through college are also 3.5 times less likely to fall below the poverty level. This is in large part because of the greater earnings potential of college-degree holders. All graduates of college enjoy a median income that is $36,000 more than peers who forego college degrees. The difference is significant even at the earliest stages of professional careers. Those who recently obtained a bachelor’s degree have a median income of $52,000. Meanwhile, high school graduates the same age can expect median earnings at around $30,000. In other words, the perception that a college education is an important means of economic advancement largely aligns with reality.
Why is the Percentage of Americans with College Degrees Important? (Continued)
It is also the case that degrees have become prerequisites for entering a variety of desirable job fields. According to Liberty Street Economics, the blog of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, over 60% of college graduates work in jobs requiring college degrees. Their research finds that the percentage is even greater in densely populated metropolitan areas like New York or Chicago. The fact that degrees are increasingly necessary when entering the workforce is a major reason for the increase in degree-holders.
Simply having a degree has come to mean more than what graduates majored in. We’ve provided a breakdown of the differences between the different types of college degrees vs. majors elsewhere on our blog. In general, degrees refer to credentials obtained from completing associate, bachelor, master, and doctoral programs. Regardless of whether one majors in humanities, STEM, or social science fields, they earn one of those degrees upon graduation. Recently, a writer for Forbes has asserted that the topic or major of college degrees is irrelevant. They base this on the fact that only 27% of graduates work in a job that relates to their major in any way. While certain specialized fields like computer science and engineering enjoy slightly better job prospects, arts majors can still rest assured of the general positive value of their degrees.
Percentage of Americans With College Degrees (Continued)
Of course, attending college is not the same as graduating with a degree. The former does not carry the overwhelming advantages afforded to degree credentials. Thus, it can be valuable for prospective students to investigate the retention and graduation rates at universities before applying. In another of our blog posts, we’ve provided a detailed list of these rates for various institutions of higher learning. This information is also valuable to university stakeholders for monitoring key metrics affecting the percentage of Americans with college degrees.
As previously stated, around 44% of Americans 25 and older have attended college and completed their degree programs. The grand majority of these degree-holders possess a bachelor’s degree. 35% of those over 25 have a bachelor’s degree or higher. The percentage who have attained only an associate’s degree is significantly lower, sitting at just under 9%. Meanwhile, about 26% have high school degrees only and just over 19% have some college experience but no degree. In other words, the percentage of Americans with college degrees represents a larger share of the population than those with either no or only some college experience.
Percentage of College Graduates By Race
Census data also points to discrepancies in terms of sex, race, and nationality in who attains college degrees. In the U.S., women are more likely than men the same age to have completed a bachelor’s degree or more. In 2022, 39% of women over 25 had at least a bachelor’s, compared to 36.2% of men. Notably, there remain significant gender disparities in certain STEM fields that lead to some of the highest paying jobs. But in general, women represent a greater share of the percentage of Americans with college degrees.
Recent immigrants were more likely to have a college education than U.S. natives or those who immigrated earlier. This is the case for both undergraduate and advanced degrees, with U.S. immigrants in general representing a greater share of those with master’s, professional, or doctoral degrees. The large number of immigrants and international students attaining U.S. degrees demonstrates the broader, international consensus about their value.
The percentage of degree holders has increased across racial and ethnic groups. However, race remains the source of the most significant contrasts in the demographics of U.S. degree holders. Of the U.S. Black and Hispanic populations, 27.6% and 20.9% had a bachelor’s degree or more in 2022, respectively. In both cases, these percentages are above what they were 10 years before by around 6%. However, both figures are well below the percentages of the non-Hispanic white and Asian populations who have degrees. These groups have also seen a 6 percentage point increase in the number of people with degrees. But the share of white and Asian groups with a bachelor’s was much higher in 2022, at 41.8% and 59.3%.
Percentage of College Graduates By Race (Continued)
The Census results further indicate disparities in increases to average nominal earnings between degree holders in these different ethnic groups. Non-Hispanic white workers with a bachelor’s degree saw the largest average increase in wages. Their Black peers saw the lowest nominal increase in earnings.
These disparities across sex, nationality, and especially race have contributed toward a common perception that not all Americans have access to quality, affordable education after high school. The previously cited Gallup article indicates that only 23% believe all or most Americans have access to college. Additionally, the Pew Research Center holds that high tuition costs have become a focus of bipartisan concern about college accessibility. While Republicans and Democrats often have very different views about college, majorities of both parties agree it is too expensive. Certainly, a variety of factors—from high tuition costs and income disparities to demographic differences in admissions, graduation, and retention rates—have affected who holds a college degree in America today.
Most regard college as incredibly important for career success, and also think college should become more equitable, affordable, and accessible. Both perspectives are supported by the numbers. Evidence shows that college has an enormous impact on career and earning potential. It also reveals that many are held back from this tool of social mobility. Given this, it is vital to continue to bolster the percentage of Americans with college degrees across all demographics. Stakeholders can approach this by strengthening the education pipeline, improving retention and graduation rates, and dealing with rising tuition costs. It is a good sign that more people are getting college degrees. But more work remains to be done.