The degree of degrees

Published: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 1:15 a.m. CDT

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 has reported. As recently as 1998, fewer than one-quarter of people this age had this level of education.

Overall, the increase in the proportion of the population with a bachelor’s degree or higher went from 26.2 percent to 30.4 percent.

Those with bachelor’s degrees weathered the recession better. People with a bachelor’s degree had lower rates of unemployment than those with less education in every month from January 2008 to December 2010. This period included all but one month of the recent recession, which began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009.

According to Educational Attainment in the United States: 2009, the unemployment rate for high school dropouts reached a peak in January 2010 (17.6 percent) and February 2010 (17.9 percent). In February, unemployment for people with a bachelor’s degree was 5.9 percent.

More than one-third (20 million) of the nation’s 56 million bachelor’s degree holders held their degree in the broad field of science and engineering, including 4 million each in the social sciences and engineering and 3 million in biological, agricultural and environmental sciences.

The report, Field of Bachelor’s Degree in the United Sates: 2009, shows nearly half the nation’s science and engineering degree holders resided along the East or West coasts.

According to What It’s Worth: Field of Training and Economic Status in 2009, 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.

The report also addresses disparities in educational and occupational outcomes by mode of high school completion. It shows in 2009, 16.9 million adults earned a GED certificate to satisfy their high school requirements. While 73 percent of those who received a high school diploma went on to complete at least some post-secondary education, less than half (43 percent) of GED recipients pursued post-secondary schooling. Only 5 percent earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. In contrast, of high school diploma holders, 33 percent earned a bachelor’s degree or higher.

GED certificate holders earned less than high school diploma recipients at all education levels and across sex, race and ethnicity, and age. Overall, high school graduates earned approximately $4,700 in mean monthly earnings compared with GED certificate holders, who earned $3,100. This difference in earnings is only partly because of lower levels of educational attainment of those who earned a GED certificate rather than a high school diploma. Among adults who attained a bachelor’s degree or higher, the mean earnings of those who earned a high school diploma were approximately $6,300, while the earnings of those who earned a GED certificate were approximately $4,900. 

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