Reporting from Washington — In an encouraging sign for the American economy, the share of the U.S. adult population with at least a bachelor's degree kept growing last year, surpassing 30% for the first time ever.
The Census Bureau, in releasing new data Thursday on education and earnings, called it an important "milestone" in American history. As recently as 1998, fewer than one-fourth of people ages 25 and older had completed four years of college or more, the bureau said.
The growth came despite the increasing hardship on families to pay for higher education. Many more students have taken out large government loans to support their studies, while many recent graduates, struggling to land jobs in this tough economy, have wondered whether it was worth it all.
In general, there's little doubt that more education than less leads to better jobs and higher pay. The latest unemployment rate for workers with at least a bachelor's degree is 4.2% -- exactly half the rate of those with just high school diplomas.
Even so, the new statistics indicate that as far as earnings go, the field of study is as important in some cases as how far one has gone in schooling. People with bachelor's degrees in education, for example, earned a median of $3,417 a month in 2009, but those with an associate's degree in engineering, generally attained in two years, pulled down $4,257 a month.
Over all, the census data show workers with a bachelor's degree had median annual earnings of $56,470 in 2009, compared with $39,867 for those with some college (but no degree) and $33,213 for workers with only a high school diploma.
Yet as private researchers also have pointed out, the biggest beneficiaries of the increasingly technology-driven, global economy are those with advanced degrees. The average monthly earnings for people with professional degrees, such as doctors and lawyers, had average monthly earnings of nearly $12,000 in 2009, more than double the pay of those who stopped with a bachelor's degree, according to census data.
Thursday's report provides a bit of heartening news given that economists and policy experts have bemoaned the fact that many in the U.S. who start college never end up attaining degrees. Post-secondary attainment and completion levels are widely seen as a measure of a country's economic competitiveness.
Census officials noted that they were struck by the educational strides made among Latinos. The number of Latinos with a bachelor's degree or higher stood at 3.8 million last year, an 81% increase from 2.1 million in 2001.