New Census Data Show Minority Gains in Bachelor's Degree Attainment

February 23, 2012

New data from the U.S. Census Bureau give a more detailed look at the 61 million Americans over the age of 25 who hold a bachelor's degree or higher, and show strong gains in degree attainment among minority groups over the past decade.

From 2001 to 2011, the number of Hispanics 25 and over with a bachelor's degree or higher rose by 80 percent, the figures show. Among blacks, the increase was 47 percent, and among non-Hispanic whites, it was 24 percent.

The bureau first reported last April that Americans who hold a bachelor's degree or higher now make up 30 percent of the population, a figure that may bode well for President Obama's goal to raise the country's college-graduation rate so that it leads the world by 2020. The new data released by the bureau on Thursday, in a series of five reports, give demographic information about Americans at various levels of educational attainment.

The total U.S. population increased 9.7 percent from 2000 to 2010, while the proportion of Americans over the age of 25 with a bachelor's degree rose 15.4 percent, according to the 2010 Census.

Kurt Bauman, chief of the Census Bureau's division for social, economic, and housing statistics, who briefed reporters on the new findings in a conference call on Thursday, attributed the increase in bachelor's degree holders to the two-million-student jump in college enrollment that occurred from 1990 to 2000.

The data in one of the new reports, "Educational Attainment in the United States: 2011," come from a Census supplement that presents statistics on the levels of education by demographic, as well as over time.

Those with a bachelor's degree or more represented 50 percent of Asians 25 years and over, while 34 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 20 percent of African-Americans reported achieving the same level of education in 2011. The proportion of Hispanics over 25 who hold at least a bachelor's degree rose from 11.1 percent in 2001 to 14.1 percent in 2011.

There are more than 50 million Latinos in the United States, and they are the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority group. Deborah A. Santiago, vice president for policy and research at the nonprofit group Excelencia in Education, said Latinos represent a crucial population in raising the national college-completion rate.

"We can't reach that 2020 goal if we don't have a tactical plan to increase Latino college completion," she said. "This population is engaged to help the country meet that goal."

Another of the new reports, "What It's Worth: Field of Training and Economic Status in 2009," examines the relationship between level of education, field of training, and eventual occupation and earnings.

Its release closely follows the findings of a Georgetown University study last year that used the same Census data to compare earnings by field of study in college. The Census study on economic status found striking differences in the median incomes between, say, an education major and a mechanical-engineering major.

"Sometimes the subject a person has pursued is as important as how far they went in school," Mr. Bauman said.

While the United States trails countries such as Japan and China in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics degrees, the Census Bureau found that degrees in those so-called STEM fields make up 34.9 percent of bachelor's degrees among Americans over the age of 25. The survey also found that STEM degree holders tend to gravitate toward the coasts, with 28 percent of STEM degree holders living in the Northeast and 19 percent living on the Pacific coast.

The Census also compared trends between men and women in higher education, and found that last year women over the age of 25 surpassed their male counterparts in number of bachelor's degrees held, with 31 million and 30 million, respectively.

Another report, "Educational Attainment in the United States: 2009," found that those with a postsecondary degree were hit less hard by the recession than those without a degree. At the peak level of unemployment, in February 2010, the rate of unemployment for Americans with a bachelor's degree was 5.9 percent, while the rate for those without a college degree was 17.9 percent.

Stanley G. Jones, president of Complete College America, said national gains in degree attainment do not change the need to double down on college-completion efforts.

"That's an improvement, but it's modest, and certainly not as aggressive as the president wants," he said in an interview. "While the progress is being made, we're a long time away from declaring victory."

Corrections (2/24, 10:34 a.m.): This article originally misstated President Obama's college-completion goal. Mr. Obama aims to raise the nation's college-completion rate so that it leads the world by 2020. He has not set a specific numeric goal for that rate. The article also misidentified the organization led by Stanley G. Jones. It is Complete College America, not the National Consortium for College Completion. The article has been updated to reflect these corrections.