The U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey shows growth in college degrees.
The U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey shows growth in college degrees. - 
Listen To The Story

The U.S. Census Bureau released a trove of new data Thursday from the American Community Survey. Among the findings: In 2014, 30 percent of adults 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree or higher. That’s up from about 28 percent five years earlier. For the first time, women were more likely to have a bachelor’s degree than men.

The Census Bureau looked at two five-year periods, from 2005 to 2009 and 2010 to 2014. Of the approximately 3,100 counties in the United States, 1,000 saw increases in the percentage of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Only 60 counties had decreases.

“This is happening in rural areas, in urban areas, in the north, south, east and west,” said Kurt Bauman, chief of the education branch at the U.S. Census Bureau. “There’s an increase in educational attainment in counties everywhere.”  

While young women have long outpaced young men in getting degrees, this is the first time women overall have surpassed men, said Bauman.

For decades, growing numbers of women have pursued college at the same time the U.S. manufacturing economy shifted to a service economy, in which education matters more than physical strength, said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. 

 “It’s like the relationship between a stream and a lake,” Carnevale said. "Finally, the stream of women became stronger and stronger and now the lake has more women in it than men.”

Meanwhile, men without college degrees can still find decent jobs in traditionally male-dominated industries like transportation, agriculture, and mining, Carnevale said. Traditionally female-dominated fields like nursing increasingly require four-year degrees.

“In the end men still have greater opportunity at lower education levels," Carnevale said.

 Overall, the U.S. is still far behind other developed countries in producing college graduates, he said. One reason is the growing cost.

“We’re going to have to find a whole new way to do college,” Carnevale said. “We’ve got to figure out how we can provide more college, more efficiently, and at lower cost.”

Too many students start college and never finish, he said. According to recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse, of the three million people who started college in 2009, a little more than half of them graduated six years later.

This Census Bureau graphic shows the counties with statistically significant increases and decreases in residents over 25 with bachelor's degrees.


Editor's note: This story was updated to include additional analysis from Anthony Carnevale on gender and college degrees. 

“I think the best compliment I can give is not to say how much your programs have taught me (a ton), but how much Marketplace has motivated me to go out and teach myself.” – Michael in Arlington, VA

As a nonprofit news organization, what matters to us is the same thing that matters to you: being a source for trustworthy, independent news that makes people smarter about business and the economy. So if Marketplace has helped you understand the economy better, make more informed financial decisions or just encouraged you to think differently, we’re asking you to give a little something back.

Become a Marketplace Investor today – in whatever amount is right for you – and keep public service journalism strong. We’re grateful for your support.

Follow Amy Scott at @amyreports