How Many People Had a College Degree Every Year Since 1971

One of the most important trends of the past century in the United States has been the dramatic increase in college education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of Americans under the age of 30 who attended college for at least four years, with or without attaining a bachelor’s degree, was only 6% during World War II, when the earliest reliable data was collected. By 2019, the percentage of Americans who not only went to college for at least four years but earned a bachelor’s degree had risen to 38.7%.

Click here to see the percentage of adults who earned at least a four-year college degree the year you were born.

Some could argue that even that number of college-educated Americans is insufficient, considering that a college education greatly increases a person’s employment and earning potential. The Association of Public Land-Grant Universities has computed that the median amount earned annually by a bachelor’s degree holder is $14,000 higher than that for a worker with just a high school diploma. (These are the highest paying jobs you can get without a college degree.)

College-educated workers also are more likely to enjoy pay gains and have more opportunities to switch jobs. Recent trends in higher education show that the pace of people acquiring at least a four year degree is accelerating, according to a February 2021 U.S. Census Bureau report, with particularly significant gains by African-Americans. Lingering racial wealth gaps persist in higher-education attainment, but the data suggest progress has been made since 2005.

However, according to the Census report, much of this recent progress in higher-education attainment occurred in counties that already have populations of college graduates above the national average. This suggests that areas of the country with a high number of college graduates tend to produce more college graduates over time. (Here’s a list of the most educated city in every state.)

To identify the percentage of adults who had at least a 4-year college degree the year you were born, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the United States Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS) historic time series tables for the population 25 years and older. Total adult population over 25 is also from the CPS historic tables. Average cost of attending college (tuition, fees, room and board) is based on data from College Board, a nonprofit educational organization.

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