For the first time, about one-third of young adults in the U.S. hold bachelor’s degrees, according to the Pew Research Center, up from fewer than 20 percent of young Americans in the early 1970s. And the number of high school graduates has risen as well, with 90 percent of Americans now having a high school degree, up from 78 percent in 1971.
The economic slowdown had a large impact on the gains in educational attainment, the New York Times reports, as a college degree now translates into much higher wages than it did several decades ago:
In a 2010 Gallup survey, about three-quarters of Americans agreed that a college education is very important, up from only 36 percent in 1978.
The wage premium for those with college degrees has leapt 40 percent since 1983, according to Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
“The demand for college graduates has been increasing about 3 percent a year, while the supply has increased only one percent a year, which is why the college wage premium has increased so precipitously,” he said.
Since the recession began, workers without a college degree have lost more than 5 million jobs, compared to no net loss for workers with at least a bachelor’s degree. While the national unemployment rate is around 7.9 percent, the unemployment rate is closer to 4 percent for those with college degrees. It’s in the mid-teens for those with only a high school degree.
But despite the increasing number of college degrees, the U.S. is still lagging behind many other developed nations — including South Korea, Canada, Japan, and Russia. The percentage of Americans with degrees is also growing more slowly than other nations. Additionally, the United States is among the worst developed countries in ensuring that young people obtain a college degree if their parents did not, and almost half of American college students drop out before they complete their degree.