New data from the U.S. Census Bureau released Thursday has revealed big news for the progress of higher education in America: for the first time ever, 30 percent of American adults 25 or older held at least a bachelor's degree in 2011.
"This is an important milestone in our history," said Census Bureau Director Robert Groves in a press release. The 3-in-10 ratio shows a fairly rapid rise: in 1998, fewer than 25 percent of Americans had attained this level of education.
The data, distributed in five different reports, shows both ground gained for and persistent gaps between educational attainment among groups, regions and genders.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the number of Hispanics 25 and above who hold a bachelor's degree has increased by 80 percent over the last 10 years. The figure for black adults rose 47 percent over the same time period, and 24 percent among non-Hispanic whites.
The gaps between these groups, however, continue. In 2011, Asian-Americans reported the highest percentage of degree attainment, with 50 percent holding a bachelor's or higher. Parallel figures were 34 percent of whites, 20 percent of blacks and 14 percents of Hispanics, Inside Higher Ed reported.
The data also announced the nation's most highly educated urban areas: 46.8 percent of the adults in Washington, D.C., are college graduates or above. The Silicon Valley area of northern California came in a close second with 45.3 percent, according to the Washington Post.
Women represented more than half of those who attained degrees, the data showed (31 million women to 30 million men). Inside Higher Ed reported that the number of women with a bachelor's degree increased 37 percent over the last 10 years, while the number of women with Ph.D's jumped 90 percent in the same amount of time.
However, the Washington Post noted, women still earn less at every level of education than men with parallel degree attainment.
Debate continues to rumble over the future of higher education in America, specifically cost versus benefit and which degrees are worth investing in. The Post reported that field of study matters more than ever for future income.
But the census data also showed bachelor's degrees helping Americans during the recession. "People with a bachelor's degree had lower rates of unemployment than those with less education in every month from January 2008 to December 2010," the press released noted.