In 1940, only 5 percent of adults held a college degree. Now, that number is 30.4 percent.
There's been plenty of skepticism over whether the United States can produce enough college graduates to stay economically competitive on the global stage, but according to just-released U.S. Census Bureau data, the nation has reached an unprecedented milestone. For the first time in history, more than 30 percent of Americans aged 25 or older—56 million people—have a bachelor's degree.
In 1940, only 5 percent of that same age population held a college degree. That number climbed to 26.2 percent by 2001, and hit the record in March 2011, despite the skyrocketing cost of higher education. And, at a time of critical need for more workers with science, technology, and engineering skills, the data indicates that more than one-third of those degree holders have a diploma in science or engineering.
Gender disparities between degree holders are shrinking as well. Across all age groups, 30 percent of women hold a degree, compared to 31 percent of men. Among young people, women hold an edge 36 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 29 have a degree, compared to 28 percent of their male peers.
Does this mean that America is on track to reach President Obama's goal of producing 8 million more college degree holders by 2020? While there is plenty of room for improvement—particularly regarding college completion rates of minority populations—the latest numbers are a surprising step in the right direction.