Growing Attainment, Persisting Inequality: College Degrees 2010-2020

February 19, 2024

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Title: Learning and Earning by Degrees: Gains in College Degree Attainment Have Enriched the Nation and Every State, but Racial and Gender Inequality Persists

Authors: Anthony P. Carnevale, Jeff Strohl, Kathryn Peltier Campbell, Artem Gulish, Ban Cheah, Emma Nyhof, Lillian Fix

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce

A new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce explores the monetary and nonmonetary gains of increasing college degree completion between 2010 and 2020.

The share of U.S. adults with college degrees climbed from 38.5 percent to 45.2 percent over that decade. These additional degree holders can expect $14.2 trillion more in collective lifetime earnings compared to those who only have a high school diploma. Their increased earning potential leads to greater consumer purchasing power, tax revenue, and employment rates—benefits that strengthen the U.S. economy.

However, attainment gaps still exist in the following areas:

  • Women made greater gains than men in degree attainment across races/ethnicities, but still earn less than men with the same level of education. With one additional degree, women’s lifetime earnings still fall below men’s.
  • Substantial degree attainment gaps continue between white adults and other racial/ethnic groups (except Asian Americans). Even at equal degree levels, earnings gaps remain.
  • The District of Columbia, North Carolina, and New Jersey saw the largest increases in the share of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher, while North Dakota, South Dakota, and New Mexico saw the smallest gains.

Postsecondary education attainment also provides nonmonetary benefits, including improved health outcomes, declines in crime and incarceration rates, more civic and community engagement, and increased opportunities to develop a pluralistic mindset and collaborate with people from diverse backgrounds.

Reaching educational and economic justice requires substantial commitment to equal opportunity, but the sizable economic and social benefits of reducing inequality in both education and the workforce make it well worth the effort. Recommendations for realizing these benefits include:

  • Supporting equitable opportunities for youth through quality education, nutrition, housing, etc.
  • Improving college access and completion through affordability, counseling, admissions, and support services.
  • Addressing barriers to high-earning college majors stemming from demand, cost, and prerequisites.
  • Investing in quality non-degree training and credentials to expand good job options for those without degrees.
  • Remedying unequal pay in the labor market, including through anti-discrimination protections.

Click here for the full report and here for state degree attainment profiles.

—Alex Zhao

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