A Sharp Rise in Americans With College Degrees

The surge follows more than two decades of slow growth in college completion, which caused the United States to fall behind other countries and led politicians from both parties, including President Obama, to raise alarms.

Last year, 33.5 percent of Americans ages 25 to 29 had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 24.7 percent in 1995, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In 1975, the share was 21.9 percent. The number of two-year college degrees, master’s degrees and doctorates has also risen recently.

The increases appear to be driven both by a sharp rise in college enrollment and by an improvement among colleges in graduating students. The trends could bring good news in future years, economists say, as more Americans become qualified for higher-paying jobs as the economy recovers.

College attendance has increased in the past decade partly because of the new types of jobs that have been created in the digital age, which have increased the wage gap between degree holders and everyone else. The recent recession, which pushed more workers of all ages to take shelter on college campuses while the job market was poor, has also played a role.

“Basically, I was just barely getting by, and I didn’t like my job, and I wanted to do something that wasn’t living dollar to dollar,” said Sarah O’Doherty, 24, a former nail salon receptionist who will graduate next month from the County College of Morris in New Jersey with a degree in respiratory therapy. “After I had my son, I wanted to do something I felt passionate about, to have a career.”

The attainment of bachelor’s degrees has risen much faster for young women in the past decade than for young men. It has also risen among young whites, blacks and Hispanics, though relatively little among Asians, who already had the highest rate of college completion. The share of people with a college degree also varies tremendously by state, with 48.1 percent of people ages 25 to 34 in Massachusetts holding a bachelor’s degree, but just 20.4 percent in Nevada, according to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a research and development center founded to improve management at colleges.

Despite the recent improvement, higher education experts emphasized that college completion rates were still distressingly low, with only about half of first-time college freshmen who enrolled in 2006 having graduated by 2012, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

“There are worrisome signs that the demand for high-skilled talent is increasing more rapidly than we’re actually educating people,” said Jamie P. Merisotis, the chief executive of the Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis group that focuses on higher education, which is releasing a report on Thursday analyzing the federal data. “We can’t expect our citizens to meet the demands of the 21st-century economy and society without a 21st-century education.”

The recent jump in college graduation mirrors similar increases in educational attainment during previous severe downturns, economists said.

“It was sort of one of these ironic good things about the Great Depression, that it got all these kids to graduate from high school, which turned out to be really good for workers later on,” said Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard.

The G.I. Bill then created a second surge in educational investment after World War II, which also helped fuel the postwar economic boom. Of course, in those cases, Professor Goldin said, education was free or very cheap; college today is not.

Cost may be one reason that college completion has not risen nearly as much for low-income students, many of whom take on large amounts of debt and often do not graduate. The share of 24-year-olds from low-income families who hold college degrees has remained relatively flat over the last several decades, according to Tom Mortenson, a higher education policy analyst with Postsecondary Education Opportunity, a newsletter.

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