Educational attainment is a powerful predictor of well-being. Young adults who have completed higher levels of education are more likely to achieve economic success than those who have not. In addition to qualifying one for a broader range of jobs, completing more years of education also protects against unemployment., Further, higher levels of educational attainment often lead to higher wages and income: in 2015, Americans with bachelor’s degrees or higher earned a median income that was more than 73 percent higher that of their peers with only high school diplomas. In the past few decades, earning differentials by education level have been increasing, especially among women and black workers. Adults with higher levels of education also report being in better health and having higher levels of socio-emotional well-being. They are also less likely to divorce, or be incarcerated.,,,
The educational attainment of 25- to 29-year-olds generally increased between 1971 and 2000. The largest increases occurred in those who attained a B.A. degree or higher, and those completing at least some college. Among 25- to 29-year-olds in 2000, 58 percent had completed at least some college, up from 34 percent in 1971 (a 72 percent increase), and 29 percent had attained a B.A or higher, up from 17 percent (a 70 percent increase). Since 2000, progress has been somewhat slower. In 2015, 91 percent of 25- to 29-year-olds had completed high school or more. The proportion who had completed at least some college was 63 percent, up from 58 percent in 2000 (an eight percent increase). Thirty-three percent held a bachelor’s degree or higher, up from 29 percent in 2000 (a 15 percent increase). (Figure 1)
In 2015, white young adults (ages 25-29) were more likely than black and Hispanic young adults to have completed higher levels of education. However, gains by blacks over the last 30 years have nearly erased the black-white gap for high school completion: 95 percent of whites and 92 percent of blacks in this age group had completed high school in 2015. Hispanics have also gained in educational attainment since the 1970s, but have not completely closed the gap with whites: 77 and 95 percent, respectively, had at least a high school level of education, in 2015. (Figure 2)
When it comes to rates of higher educational attainment, gaps by race/Hispanic origin are wider. In 2015, among young adults (ages 25 to 29), the percentage of whites who had attained at least a bachelor’s degree (43 percent) was 2.5 times that of Hispanics (16 percent), and twice that of blacks (21 percent). (Figure 2)
Some of the education gap between white and Hispanics at this age group can be attributed to recent Hispanic immigrants, who tend to have attained lower levels of education in their home countries. In addition, numbers reported here do not include incarcerated young adults; at least some of the narrowing race gap may be accounted for by increasing incarceration rates among black and Hispanic males with low educational attainment, especially high school dropouts.,
In 2015, women were more than twice as likely to have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher than they were in 1971. (Appendix 1) Women now exceed men in the proportion attaining each level of education, with the widest gap among those who have completed at least some college. In 2015, 92 percent of women ages 25-29 had completed high school, compared with 91 percent for men. 70 percent of women had completed some college, compared with 61 percent of men, and 39 percent of women had received at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 32 percent of men. The actual gap is likely wider than this estimate, given the high incarceration rate for males who did not finish high school. (Figure 3)
2000-2014 state-level estimates for young adults who are enrolled in or have completed college are available at the KIDS COUNT Data Center.
2000-2015 state-level estimates for high school graduates age 25-29 who have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher are also available.
Detailed state-level estimates of educational
attainment are also available through the American Community Survey.
International estimates for Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries are available by gender for those completing secondary and tertiary education from Education at a Glance, 2014, Indicator A1.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 authorizes competitive grants to achieve improved education results across a “K-20” spectrum that encompasses college success.
The Lumina Foundation has set a goal to increase the proportion of Americans with high quality degrees, certificates, or other credentials to 60 percent by 2025.
Additionally, the Healthy People 2020 initiative has set a goal to increase the proportion of high school students who graduate within four years, from 74.9 percent in 2007-08, to 82.4 percent in 2019-20. More information is available here. (goal 5.2)
This indicator defines educational attainment as the highest grade or degree completed, as reported in the March Current Population Survey (CPS). Before 1992, educational attainment was measured in the CPS as the number of years of completed schooling. “Completed high school” includes both those with high school diplomas as well as those with high school equivalency certificates. “At least some college” includes those with associate’s degrees or professional certificates. All estimates refer only to the civilian, non-institutionalized population.
Data for 2002-2015: Child Trends’ calculations using U.S. Census Bureau, Educational Attainment in the United States: Detailed Tables: Table 1. https://www.census.gov/hhes/socdemo/education/data/cps/2015/tables.html.
Data for 1971-2001: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, The Condition of Education 2002, NCES 2002–025, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2002. Tables 25-1, 25-2, 25-3.
Current Population Survey
|High School or More1||77.7||83.1||85.4||86.2||85.7||86.9||88.1||87.7||86.4||86.5||86.6||86.2||86.4||87.0||87.8||88.6||88.8||89.0||89.7||89.9||90.8||91.2|
|Some College or More1||33.9||41.6||44.7||43.7||44.5||54.1||58.3||58.4||58.0||57.4||57.3||56.9||57.8||57.7||59.2||59.9||61.2||62.1||62.7||63.1||64.3||65.2|
|Bachelor’s Degree or Higher1||17.1||21.9||22.5||22.2||23.2||24.7||29.1||28.7||29.3||28.4||28.7||28.8||28.4||29.6||30.8||30.6||31.7||32.2||33.5||33.6||34.0||35.6|
|“-“ Data not available.1Included in the totals but not shown separately are those from other racial/ethnic categories.
2Estimates for 2002-2005 reflect the new Office of Management and Budget race definitions, and include only those who are identified with a single race. Hispanics may be of any race.
Data for 1971-2001: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, The Condition of Education 2002, NCES 2002–025, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2002. Tables 25-1, 25-2, 25-3. Data for 2002-2015: Child Trends’ calculations using U.S. Census Bureau, Educational Attainment in the United States: Detailed Tables: Table 1. http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/educ-attn.htm.
Caspi, A., Wright, B.E., Moffit, T.E., and Silva, P.A. (1998). Childhood predictors of unemployment in early adulthood. American Sociological Review, 63 (3), 424-451.
Child Trends Analysis based on U.S. Department of Education. (2014) The condition of education. Table 502.30. Median annual earnings of full-time year-round workers 25 to 34 years old and full-time year-round workers as a percentage of the labor force, by sex, race/ethnicity, and educational attainment: Selected years, 1995 through 2012. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/current_tables.asp
Ross, C. E., & Wu, C. (1995). The links between education and health. American Sociology Review 60, 719-745
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2002). The condition of education 2001, NCES 2001-072. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/
Stanley, S. M., Amato, P. R., Johnson, C. A., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Premarital education, marital quality, and marital stability: findings from a large, random household survey. Information Brief. Journal of Family Psychology, 20(1), 117.
American Human Development Project & United Way (undated). Goals for the common good: Exploring the impact of education. Retrieved November 12, 2009, fromhttp://measureofamerica.org/file/common_good_forecaster_full_report.pdf.
Hispanics may be any race. Estimates for whites and blacks in this report do not include Hispanics or those indicating multiple races.
Western, B. and Pettit, B. (2002). Beyond crime and punishment: Prisons and inequality. Contexts, 1(3), 37-43.
Heckman, J. J., LaFontaine, P. A. (2010). The American high school graduation rate: Trends and levels. Review of Economics and Statistics, 92(2), 244-262. doi: 10.1162/rest.2010.12366.
Child Trends. (2016). Educational attainment. Available at: www.childtrends.org/?indicators=educational-attainment
Last updated: December 2016