According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the 2002 American Community Survey,
52.7 percent of Americans have some college education, but only 27.2 percent
have actually obtained a degree. This is due in part to people dropping out of
school and to the fact that some colleges, such as many acting or art schools,
offer alternative education that ends on a diploma or certification, rather than
a degree. This 27 percent puts people at a disadvantage compared to other
industrialized countries, such as Netherlands and Finland, where the percentage
of people who have a degree is much higher--34 and 40 percent, respectively.
While 27 percent may seem like a small percentage, the numbers get even
smaller when talking about higher education. According to the same survey, only
8.9 percent of Americans have a Masters' Degree and only 3 percent have earned a
PhD. While these numbers are still low, they have been increasing significantly
over the past 50 years. In the 1940s, for example, only five percent of the
American population had a Bachelor's Degree.
The number of college
degrees varies significantly depending on geographical location, sex, and race.
States on the East Coast have the higher percentage of college graduates, with
the exception of the top spot, which is taken by the District of Columbia, where
42.5 percent of the population has a college degree. The next spots are taken by
Massachusetts (with 35.5 percent), Colorado (33.5 percent) and Maryland (33.1
percent). On the other end of the spectrum are West Virginia, with the lowest
percentage (16.1), followed by Mississippi (17.7) and Nevada (18.6).
the past two decades, women have surpassed men when it comes to the number of
college degrees earned. In 2006, over 60 percent of all college degrees were
earned by women, and the numbers are expected to get higher over the next
decade. When it comes to race, differences among races are significant,
especially at the Bachelor's or higher level. Asian-Americans hold the highest
percentage of degrees (50.1 percent), followed by whites (37.6 percent), African
Americans (25.4 percent) and Latinos (9.8 percent). Among all groups, those born
in the US have earned more degrees than those who came to the country during
their childhood or later. These numbers only take into consideration people who
are legal residents of the US. Illegal aliens constitute a negligible amount of
college graduates, just under 1 percent.
While having a college degree
plays an important part in getting out of poverty and improving social class, it
is important to note that those in middle class or higher are more likely to
earn a college degree in the first place. Both the lower middle class and the
working class come out equally at 30 percent of all the college degrees earned
in an average year. The working poor, on the other hand, earn only 12 percent of
all college degrees. They are also the most likely to obtain just an Associate,
rather than a higher degree.