By Mardee Handler

As the U.S. population becomes more educated, it appears that education continues to pay dividends.

Latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows an increasing level of educational attainment among the nation’s population age 25 and older. According to Educational Attainment in the United States: 2014, released on January 20, 2015, over one third of the population age 25 and older holds a Bachelor’s degree or higher, and approximately one in ten people have earned a Master’s degree or higher.

Highest Level of Educational Attainment – 2014

Number (in 000s) Percentage
Doctoral degree  3,703 1.8%
Professional degree  3,148 1.5%
Master’s degree 17,772 8.5%
Bachelor’s degree 42,256 20.2%
Associate’s degree (academic) 11,659 5.6%
Associate’s degree (occupational) 9,131 4.4%
Some college, no degree 34,919 16.7%
High school diploma or less 86,698 41.4%

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Educational Attainment in the United States: 2014

Note: Numbers and percentages are based on a total of 209,287,000 noninstitutionalized civil population age 25 and older

Over the past several decades, trends have shown a steady increase in the level of educational attainment for both males and females in the U.S. Even since the turn of the millennium, the percentage of population age 25 and older holding a Bachelor’s degree rose from 15.5 percent in 2000 to 20.2 percent in 2014.

What are the economic implications of a more educated American population?

In general, the level of educational attainment impacts both unemployment and earnings, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  •  As education levels go higher, unemployment rates go lower. The 2013 unemployment rate for persons age 25 and older with a Doctoral degree was 2.2 percent, compared to 3.4 percent for persons with a Master’s degree, 4.0 percent for persons with a Bachelor’s degree, and 7.5 percent for persons with a high school diploma.
  •  As education levels go higher, earnings also rise. Median weekly earnings rose in conjunction with levels of educational attainment as well. Median weekly earnings for persons age 25 and older with a high school diploma was $651 in 2013, compared to $1,108 for persons with a Bachelor’s degree, $1,329 for persons with a Master’s degree and $1,629 for persons with a Doctoral degree.

Does College Pay?

The high price tag on a college education has spurred some debate in recent years, prompting many to question whether the benefits of a degree outweigh the costs.

In February 2014, the Pew Research Center reiterated the connection between education and earnings in a report entitled, The Rising Cost of Not Going to College. “On virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment – from personal earnings to job satisfaction to the share employed full time – young college graduates are outperforming their peers with less education. And when today’s young adults are compared with previous generations, the disparity in economic outcomes between college graduates and those with a high school diploma or less formal schooling has never been greater in the modern era,” the report says.

According to Pew, college graduates in the 25-32 year age bracket earned about $17,500 more per year than their peers with a high school diploma.

Answering many students’ and parents’ question: Is a college degree worth the financial burden, Pew found the answer to be an overwhelming yes. “About nine-in-ten with at least a bachelor’s degree say college has already paid off (72%) or will pay off in the future (17%).”

Geographic Differences among Educational Attainment

States and metro areas dominated by white collar, professional and government jobs tend to be home to a higher educated population, while places whose economies are more closely tied to manufacturing and skilled labor tend to lag.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, based on 2008-2010 American Community Survey data:

  • The states with the highest percentage of population age 25 and older holding a Bachelor’s degree or higher include: District of Columbia (49.8%), Massachusetts (38.6%), Colorado (36.2%), Maryland and Connecticut – tie (35/6%) and New Jersey (35.0%).
  • On the other end of the scale, states with the lowest percentage of population with a Bachelor’s degree of higher include: West Virginia (17.1%), Arkansas (19.1%), Mississippi (19.8%), Kentucky (20.5%), and Louisiana (21.1%).

A 2012 study conducted by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, entitled Where the Grads Are: Degree Attainment in Metro Areas revealed that “seven of the ten most educated metro areas in 1970 remained among the ten most educated in 2010.” Its rankings show that the top five metro areas with the largest percentage of population holding a college degree in 2010 were: Washington, D.C. (46.8%), San Jose, CA (45.3%), Bridgeport, CT (44.0%), San Francisco (43.4%) and Madison, WI (43.3%).