How Many Americans Have a College Degree?

8 years ago
College student in class

Today on The Huffington Post I saw a gallery of photos of states with the fewest college degree holders. Number one? Arkansas. (They also have a gallery of states with the most college degree holders. Winner? Washington, D.C.) We're all shocked, right?

But a college degree does not a good American make. Think everyone has a college degree? A lot of people who have college degrees and work in companies in which everyone has to have a college degree to get hired do.

I'm always amazed when people think their experience -- especially if it's a privileged, degreed experience -- is universal. HuffPo says according to Census stats the percentage of degree-holding Americans 25-34 is 37 percent. But not everyone is 25-34.

I looked up the 2006-2008 Census information, and it says 27.4 percent of American citizens have a bachelor's degree or higher.


Image source: U.S. Census

As college gets more and more expensive, people are starting to question whether or not they should even send their kids at all. We will most certainly be sending my daughter -- even if she has to sign her life away -- because we both value the social and life-lessons experience one has from being thrown into a huge pot of people with every different type of value system and having to learn to sit in a classroom and communicate with them and in the doors that degree opens. Sure, the education part is nice, too, but honestly, I believe college just teaches you how to apply yourself and discipline yourself for a task more than anything else, and I did quite well in college.

But I also realize how very privileged we are to even have that attitude, that certainty that She.Will.Go.To.College. Only she can determine whether or not she will graduate, but she will go. A lot of people go. Only 27.4 percent graduate. That's where I think the "teaching you to stay on task" part comes in. The other part, though, is this: In order to focus, to stay on task, you can't also be working 60 hours a week at three jobs. I was working between 32-40 hours a week when I went back to graduate school, and I only took one or two classes a semester. It took me longer to get through a two-year masters program than it did to get through a four-year undergrad program. It put a huge strain on my relationship. I was always exhausted. I never had any free time. I can't imagine spending eight years getting my undergrad degree at that pace while working a full-time job. Which, I'm sure, is why a lot of people never get their bachelor's degree.

With fewer and fewer scholarships and loans getting harder and harder to get, the choice between college and a full-time job is going to get harder to make. And yes, back in the day you could work a part-time job to put yourself through school. Not now. Tuition costs have gone up, way outpacing salaries.

Here's how much it cost to go to school back in 1999, when I started my master's degree (these numbers are for undergrad).


Image source: U.S. Dept. of Education

If you can't read it, it says in-state public four-year programs were $3,356 for what I'm assuming is a semester.

According to nonprofit College Board, here's the information for 2008-2009 for that same semester (or year):


Image source: College Board

Looks like $7,020.

I don't know about you, but I don't make all that much more than I made in 2000. Partly it's my industry, partly it's my reticence to be a huge climber because I became a mother and wanted less travel and more reasonable hours. Part of it was switching career paths. Part of it is an economy that has guaranteed you'll barely get a two-percent raise for the past five years, if anything at all. But education costs, man, they soldier on. They've more than doubled in ten years. If I were going to get my master's today, I couldn't pay it off as I went, as I did in 1999-2002. No way.

I still believe in college. I believe firmly in college. I taught Composition I at Kansas City Kansas Community College for four semesters in the early 2000s, and I know kids benefit from being held to collegiate standards as opposed to high school standards. I know they benefit from applying themselves and having to sit for three hours at a time and having to work with each other in small groups whether or not they want to. I know they benefit from exposure to new thinking, adult thinking, not the type our censor-happy high schools put forth.

But I also know how very hard it is to get and stay in college. I know how much concentration it takes, and it's much easier to concentrate when you don't have to work full-time.

Really looking at the percentage of the population that has a college degree made me realize that I, with my master's, am in the six percent of Americans category (numbers from 2000), even though in my immediate circle of friends, almost everyone has a master's. My friends with doctorates? One percent.

So as I think about current affairs, as I think about immigration, as I think about people whose lives are impacted by the oil spill or a tornado, I think about people who can't just spiff up the old resume and start networking. It takes years to build a good living without a college degree, through entrepreneurship or skilled trades or working your way up or taking over the family business. If you wipe out the family farm in a tornado, you can't just quickly replace that income. Fisherman, shop owners on the Gulf -- screwed.

Only 27 percent of Americans have an easy fall-back plan. We need to think about that when we vote.

This essay is cross-posted from Surrender, Dorothy.

Rita Arens authors Surrender Dorothy and is the editor of Sleep is for the Weak. She is BlogHer's assignment and syndication editor.

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