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Report Shows Increased Higher Education Attainment Over Time

February 11, 2021 by Sara Wilkerson
Students on the campus at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, on August 23, 2020. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Earlier this week, the Census Bureau released a report brief that shows higher education attainment levels have increased for Americans over the past 15 years. Data gathered for the report was sourced from the American Community Survey, an ongoing survey initiative under the Census Bureau that provides vital information on changing populations and local communities.  

According to the Bureau’s “Bachelor’s Degree Attainment in the United States: 2005 to 2019” report, there are several key findings from the ACS’ examination of attainment from 2005-09, 2010-14, and 2015-19. These findings include: 

  • Education attainment nationwide increased during the 15-year period 
  • From 2005-2009 and 2015-2019, attainment increased for all race groups 
  • Overall, bachelor’s attainment by county increased by an average of 3.3 percentage points from 2005 to 2019 

In the report, researchers examined attainment patterns based on national and county-levels.  

On a national scale, bachelor’s attainment levels overall were shown to have increased by five percentage points over time for those aged 25 years or more, from 27.5 to 32.1%.  

Additionally, researchers found that attainment percentage levels increased for all race groups. However, the Bureau noted that attainment percentages varied among certain race groups in the 15-year period. 

According to the report’s findings, for race groups with relatively low levels of attainment at the start of the 15 year period ended up experiencing higher levels of growth in attainment compared to those starting with high levels of attainment.  

“For example, respondents identifying as Black alone, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone, and Some Other Race alone all saw the percentage of people with bachelor’s degrees expand by 20% or more.  

“Moreover, Hispanics or Latinos (of any race) and those identifying as Two or More Races had bachelor’s degree attainment increase by 30% or more from 2005– 2009 to 2015–2019,” stated the report. 

Meanwhile, groups with higher levels of attainment (i.e., White only, Asian only and non-Hispanic) at the start of the 15-year period averaged a 14% growth increase over time. 

On a county-level, the Bureau found that bachelor’s attainment by county increased by an average of 3.3 percentage points from 2005 to 2019. 

“Over half of all counties experienced a statistically significant increase in the share with a bachelor’s degree or higher,” wrote Bureau researchers.  

Yet, while attainment at the county-level increased, growth in attainment levels varied depending on counties that were above or below the national mean.  

For counties below the national mean, or those less than 18.7% of attainment, growth gains were found to be smaller than those who were above the national mean.  

“For example, counties below the mean had an average increase of 3 percentage points in bachelor’s degree attainment from 2005–2009 to 2015–2019, compared to an average increase of 3.8 percentage points for counties that were above the mean in 2005–2009.” 

Growth levels for counties were also found to have varied by region. 

The Northeast region, for instance, was found to have had the highest attainment rate in “2005–2009 (25.%) and 2015–2019 (29.8%), followed by counties in the West, Midwest, and South.” 

Additionally, the Northeast also had the fastest rate of attainment growth (4.2%) during this time period. 

Meanwhile, increases in the percentages of the population having a bachelor’s degree or higher also vary by region.  

The Northeast’s population percentage reached a high of 90.%, while in other regions like the Midwest and the South, percentages were generally significant increases as well, 60.9 and 53.3 respectively. At the same time, close to half of counties in the West (47.2%) experienced increases in attainment.  

Towards the end of the Bureau’s report, the authors noted a few observations of where higher levels of attainment were concentrated in.  

“Higher levels of educational attainment are often found in counties containing major metropolitan areas, such as the District of Columbia, New York, Chicago, and Seattle.  

“Counties with a large number of undergraduate students also exhibit higher levels of attainment, such as Centre County, Pennsylvania, home of Pennsylvania State University.” 

The report brief released from the Census Bureau marks the first time that data from multiple, non-consecutive 5-year reports from the ACS were combined to investigate bachelor’s degree attainment.  

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