Data on degree attainment, jobs and earnings

New research on the value of increased college degree attainment shows more Americans are earning postsecondary degrees, but attainment gaps between racial/ethnic gaps have barely moved. However, the wider gaps are centered at the baccalaureate and graduate levels and narrower for associate degrees.

The findings by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University are based on an analysis of federal data from 2010 to 2020, which indicate the proportion of U.S. adults who hold college degrees (associate degree and higher) increased by 6.7 percentage points to 45.2%. The largest proportional increase came at the baccalaureate level (3.3 percentage point increase, to 22.5%), followed by the graduate level (2.7 percentage point increase, to 13.5%) and then associate degrees (0.7 percentage point increase, to 9.2%).

The study comes out as national debates have focused on the value of college degrees. The findings support that more education typically means more earnings, as well as other benefits, such as better health, higher civic engagement, lower crime and incarceration, and more.

“The data tell us time and again that a college degree is the most reliable pathway to the middle class,” the study said, noting that 74% of workers with college degrees have good jobs, compared to 42% of workers with more than a high school diploma.

The research indicates that the proportion of jobs held by those with bachelor’s degrees will continue to increase through this decade, from 22% in 2021 to 26% in 2031. The proportion of those with graduate degrees in expected to increase from 14% to 16%, and those with associate degrees will nudge from 12% to 13%. However, the workforce’s portion of those with some college or a certificate is projected to drop from 19% to 16%.

A note on non-degree programs

While the distribution of U.S. jobs continues to expand for those with college degrees, those without college degrees still comprise a large part of the workforce. By 2031, 55% of all U.S. jobs will go to workers with college degrees, while around 45% will go to workers, according to the study.

The report doesn’t include information about certificates and other forms of short-term training — the center notes data on non-degree credentials is limited — but it acknowledges their importance. For example, in 2022, workers with certificates but no degrees earned 5% of the country’s earnings, it says. The center adds that legislators and policymakers recognize this value and are interested in investing in training programs through provisions such as short-term Pell grants, also known as workforce Pell.

But the report adds it should be done carefully.

“These investments must be undertaken with caution so we don’t repeat our past history of tracking–placing women and students from low-income and marginalized backgrounds on lower-wage tracks, where they will have lower earnings than white men and limited long-term economic opportunity,” it says.

A look at the disparities

Rising college degree attainment has done little to close equity gaps, but the gaps are far smaller for associate-degree holders, the report says. The largest gap at the associate-degree level is between white and Asian/Asian American adults (a 3.5 percentage point difference, favoring whites) and between whites and Hispanic/Latino adults (a 2.6 percentage point difference, also favoring whites). In contrast, the report continues, the racial/ethnic gaps in bachelor’s degree attainment relative to that of white adults are in the double digits from most groups.

The study also finds that earnings differ between women and men at every educational attainment level. For example, the median life earnings for men with an associate degree is $1.7 million; for women, $1.1 million. For those with a bachelor’s degree, the earnings are $2.5 million for men, $1.5 million for women.

“Women not only earn less than men over their careers but also gain less than men by getting an additional degree,” the report adds, observing that women with baccalaureates earn less than men with associate degrees, and women with graduate degrees earn less than men with bachelor’s degrees.

The research was supported by Lumina Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.
The owner of this website has made a commitment to accessibility and inclusion, please report any problems that you encounter using the contact form on this website. This site uses the WP ADA Compliance Check plugin to enhance accessibility.