More Young Adults Hold Degrees, a Boost in the Job Market, U.S. Says

May 24, 2013

The educational attainment of young Americans has increased over the past two decades, and those who have completed more education earn more money, on average, and are more likely to be employed. That's just one corner of the picture painted by "The Condition of Education 2013," the annual treasure-trove of data from the U.S. Department of Education, released on Thursday.

The report holds few surprises for close observers of American education, but rather offers a comprehensive overview of enrollment and attainment from early education through graduate school, as well as information on how students pay for higher education and how they fare later in the job market.

More Americans go directly from high school to college than did in the past. In 1975, just over half of high-school graduates went right on to college; in 2011, 68 percent did. But college-going patterns are linked to family income: 82 percent of students from families whose incomes are in the top 20 percent move directly into higher education, while only 52 percent of those with family incomes in the bottom 20 percent do.

And more young Americans have earned degrees. A third of 25- to 29-year-olds had earned at least a bachelor's degree in 2012, up from 23 percent in 1990. There is considerable variation, however. Attainment gaps by race persisted through that period, while women have overtaken men.

Women also graduate from college at higher rates. Sixty-one percent of women who began their bachelor's degrees at four-year colleges as first-time, full-time students in 2005 had completed them within six years, compared with 56 percent of men. Still, young men have higher median earnings than do young women at every level of education.

People with more education make more money, on average, and their employment rates and rates of full-time, full-year work are higher. For instance, in 2012, 81 percent of 25- to 64-year-olds with at least a bachelor's degree were employed, compared with 66 percent of people whose highest level of education was a high-school diploma.

The median earnings of adults ages 25 to 34 whose highest level of education was a high-school diploma were just shy of $30,000 in 2011, while those with an associate degree earned a median of more than $37,000. Those with a bachelor's degree earned a median of nearly $45,000, and those with a master's degree or higher earned a median of close to $60,000.

Despite the evidence that college graduates have substantially better employment outcomes than those with less education, the value of college has been widely debated in recent years. After all, the burden of paying for college has shifted to students and their families at a time when the job market remains anemic. The average total cost of education for first-time, full-time freshmen, before financial aid, was about $21,000 at in-state public four-year colleges in 2011-12 and $41,420 at private nonprofit ones. After grant aid, such students paid an average of $16,820 to attend four-year colleges.