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This graph shows the educational attainment since 1947.[1]

The educational attainment of the US population is similar to that of many other industrialized countries with the vast majority of the population having completed secondary education and a rising number of college graduates that outnumber high school dropouts. As a whole the population of the United States is becoming increasingly more educated. Post-secondary education is valued very highly by American society and is one of the main determinants of class and status. As with income, however, there are significant discrepancies in terms of race, age, household configuration and geography.[1] Overall the households and demographics featuring the highest educational attainment in the United States are also among those with the highest household income and wealth. Thus, while the population of the US is becoming increasingly educated on all levels, a direct link between income and educational attainment remains.[1]

General attainment of degrees/diplomas

This graphic shows the educational attainment among the population, aged twenty-five and above, in the United States. The percentages reflect the percent of persons at or above the given level.

In 2005, the proportion of the population having finished high school and the percentage of those having earned Bachelor's degrees remained at an all-time high, while the growth in both categories has slowed down over the past two decades and has become sluggish. The vast majority of the population, 85.2%, had finished high school and over a quarter, 27.7%, had earned a Bachelor's degree. The percentage of both college and high school graduates continued to increase since 2000. Since 1983 the percentage of people graduating high school has increased from 85% to 88%. Overall the greatest increases in educational attainment were recorded in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Throughout the 1950s and much of the 1960s high school graduates constituted less than half of the population aged 25 or older. Among young adults aged between 25 and 29, the percentage of high school graduates was roughly 50% in 1950 versus nearly 90% today. The percentage of persons with a Bachelor's degree or higher increased from roughly 5% in 1950, to today's high of 27.2%.[1]


This chart shows the gender gap closing.[2]

Overall, women have caught up to men in terms of completing secondary and post-secondary education with the gender gap almost completely closed. In 2003 there were more females completing high school than males. While there was a strong increase in the percentage of individuals with a Bachelor's degree or higher among both sexes, the percentage of females earning a four-year college degree increased by seven percentage points, while the percentage of males increased by four percentage points. It should be noted, however, that in 2003 males still earned more college degrees than women and that among the overall population there were slightly more men with a Bachelor's degree or higher than women. Overall, 29% of men had a four-year college degree, versus 26% of women. This contrasts with the completion of secondary education; 85% percent of women were high school graduates compared to 84% among men. The contrasting figures indicated that fewer women than men went on to college and earned a four-year degree. Comparing the percentages of those having earned a four-year degree with those having attended college without graduating further supports this assumption. While the differences between men and women with some college education was a mere one percentage point, the difference between men and women with a Bachelor's degree or higher was three percentage points.[1] Thus the gender gap seems to widen as educational attainment increases. During the 2000 Census, 1.4% of men had a doctorate, compared to only 0.6% of women.[2]


The difference among races, both native and foreign born, in regards to those who have earned a Bachelor's degree or higher.[1]

While the educational attainment of all races increased during the 1990s, with the gap between African Americans and non-Hispanic European Americans decreasing, severe differences between the races remain, especially among those with a Bachelor's degree or higher. Asian Americans had by far the highest educational attainment of any race, followed by European Americans who had a higher percentage of high school graduates but a lower percentage of college graduates. African Americans and persons identifying as Hispanic or Latino had the lowest educational attainment. The gap between race was the largest between foreign born Asian Americans, over half (50.1%) of whom had a Bachelor's degree or higher and foreign born Hispanics, 9.8% of whom had a four-year college degree. Hispanics and Latinos also trailed far behind in terms of graduating high school; it was the only race where high school graduates constituted less than 80% of the population. This large racial inequality might partially be explained thorough the influx of uneducated Hispanic Americans who had not been offered the chance to complete secondary education in their home country. Overall nearly half (49.8%) of Asian Americans, nearly a third (30%) of non-Hispanic European Americans, 17.3% of African Americans, and just over a tenth (11.4%) of Hispanics or Latinos had a four year college degree. The same racial differences decrease significantly at the high school level with 89.4% of Asian Americans, 80.0% of African Americans, and only 57% of Hispanics or Latinos having graduated high school.[1]

An interesting trend becomes visible when comparing the foreign born to the native born populace of some races. Foreign born Asian, European, and African Americans had a higher educational attainment in terms of having earned a four-year college degree than their native born counterparts. The opposite is true on the high school level and among Hispanics, where the dramatically lower educational attainment of the foreign born population decreased the educational attainment of the entire Hispanic race, statistically.[1]

"The percentage of the foreign born with a high school diploma (67 percent) was dramatically lower than that of the native population (88 percent), but paradoxically, the percentage with a bachelor’s degree was the same (27 percent)... At the bachelor’s level, foreign born Blacks and non-Hispanic Whites fared better than their native counterparts. Foreign-born Hispanics, in contrast, had a smaller proportion with a bachelor’s degree than the native population... The low educational attainment of foreign-born Hispanics, who compose more than 50 percent of the Hispanic population, contributes to the low attainment levels of the entire Hispanic population."
- US Census Bureau, 2003

Only among Hispanics and Latinos was the proportion of college graduates larger among the native born population. In the general population the proportion of persons with a Bachelor's degree or higher was the same among the foreign born and native born population (27.2%). As stated above fewer foreign born Americans completed high school than native born Americans. Overall 87.5% of the native born population had graduated high school, versus 67.2%. Among whites the difference was three percentage points, the same as for African Americans. Among Asian Americans the difference was five percentage points and and thirty percentage points among Hispanics or Latinos.[1]


Income by education and gender.

Educational attainment had a profound impact on income in the United States. While the incomes of both men and women increased significantly with higher educational attainment (the increase becoming larger with each level), the income gap between races and genders remained at each educational level. In 2003 average incomes ranged from $13,459 for a female high school dropout to $90,761 for a male with an advanced degree. The most significant average income increase was between those who had some college education or an Associates degree and those who had a Bachelor's degree. While the former averaged $31,046 for both sexes the latter averaged $51,194, over $20,000 (64.9%) more. The second most dramatic increase in average income was between those with a Bachelor's degree with $51,194 and those with an advanced degree who made $72,824, roughly $21,000 (42.2%) more. The least significant difference was between those who had graduated high school and those who had either some college or an Associates degree. Here the difference was a mere $3,766 or 13.8%. The difference between those with a high school diploma ($27,280) and those who did not complete high school ($18,826) was $8,454 or 45%. Overall the income in the United States for all sexes, races and levels of educational attainment was $36,308 annually.[1]

Criteria Overall Less than 9th grade High school drop-out High school graduate Some college Associates degree Bachelor's degree Bechelor's degree or more Master's degree Professional degree Doctorate degree
Median individual income Male, age 25+ $33,517 $15,461 $18,990 $28,763 $35,073 $39,015 $50,916 $55,751 $61,698 $88,530 $73,853
Female, age 25+ $19,679 $9,296 $10,786 $15,962 $21,007 $24,808 $31,309 $35,125 $41,334 $48,536 $53,003
Median household income $45,016 $18,787 $22,718 $36,835 $45,854 $51,970 $68,728 $73,446 $78,541 $100,000 $96,830

SOURCE: US Census Bureau, 2003[3][4]

This graph shows the median household income in 2003 dollars according to educational attainment.[3]

The change in median personal and household since 1991 also varied greatly with educational attainment. While, both the overall median personal and household income increased since 1991, this increase did not take place on all levels of educational attainment. The overall income increased over the course of the 1990s, reaching its high in 1999, but decreasing has been ever since. In 1991 the median household income in the US was $40,873 in 2003 dollars, while the median household income in 2003 was $45,016. In 1999, however, the median household income was $46,236, 2.7% higher than today. While this trend held true for all levels of educational attainment the extend of chorinical falcutations in income were greatly influenced by educational attainment. Overall the median household and personal income decreased for those with more than a 9th grade education but less than a four-year college degree since 1991. In other words, the median household income decreased for households and individuals at the high school drop-outs and graduate, some-college, and an Associates degree level. Income did, however, increase for those with a Bachelor's degree or more. The following table shows the median household income according to the educational attainment of the householder. All data is in 2003 dollars and only applies to householders whose householder is aged twenty-five or older. The highest and lowest points of the median household income are presented in bold face.[3][4]

Year Overall Median Less than 9th grade High school drop-out High school graduate Some college Associates degree Bachelor's degree Bechelor's degree or more Master's degree Professional degree Doctorate degree
1991 $40,873 $17,414 $23,096 $37,520 $46,296 $52,289 $64,150 $68,845 $72,669 $102,667 $92,614
1993 $40,324 $17,450 $22,523 $35,979 $44,153 $49,622 $64,537 $70,349 $75,645 $109,900 $93,712
1995 $42,235 $18,031 $21,933 $37,609 $44,537 $50,485 $63,357 $69,584 $77,865 $98,302 $95,899
1997 $43,648 $17,762 $22,688 $38,607 $45,734 $51,726 $67,487 $72,338 $77,850 $105,409 $99,699
1999 $46,236 $19,008 $23,977 $39,322 $48,588 $54,282 $70,925 $76,958 $82,097 $110,383 $107,217
2001 $45,300 $18,830 $24,162 $37,468 $47,605 $53,166 $69,796 $75,116 $81,993 $103,918 $96,442
2003 $45,016 $18,787 $22,718 $36,835 $45,854 $51,970 $68,728 $73,446 $78,541 $100,000 $96,830
Average $43,376 $18,183 $23,013 $37,620 $46,109 $51,934 $66,997 $72,376 $78,094 $104,368 $94,487

SOURCE: US Census Bureau, 2003[3]

Income by education and race.

Among the races, educational attainment retain its dramatic effect on average income which varies significantly at each educational level. European Americans had the highest average income at every level of educational attainment. Since, however the proportion of those having college degrees is greater among Asian Americans than among non-Hispanic whites, the overall highest average income is found among Asians. All races except Whites ranked last on at least one level with African Americans ranking last on the non-high school, high school and advanced degree level. Asians second highest on the college graduate level and had the highest overall income among the general population had the lowest average annual income for those with some college education or an Associates degree. Racial income difference were also significant at every level of educational attainment with the largest racial inequality being between European and African Americans who did not complete high school and those with advanced college degrees. Overall European Americans with an advanced degree had the highest average annual income with $74,122. Asian Americans had the second highest with $72,852. Hispanics and African Americans had the lowest annual incomes among those with advanced degrees averaging $67,679 and $59,944 annually. The largest racial inequity was between European Americans with a Bachelor's degree who made $53,185 than Hispanics who made $12,263 or 29.9% less with an average annual income of $40,949.[1]


Not surprisingly the educational attainment varied significantly among the different types of occupations. The highest occupational attainment was among those in the Professional and related fields followed by those Business, Management and financial related occupations. The professional/managerial fields were the only two occupational fields where college graduates with a Bachelor's degree or higher represented the majority. Among professional occupations, 99.1% of the population graduated from high school, 90.2% had some college education or an Associates degree and over two thirds, 68.2% had a Bachelor's degree or higher. Business and managerial occupations were second with 97.8% having graduated high school, 79.5% having some college or an associates degree and just over half, 53.4% having a Bachelor's degree or higher. While nearly all emplyment fields feature a population where over 80% had graduated high school with over a third having some college education or an Associates degree, the fields relating to agriculture, construction, manufacturing, and transportation did not. These, often described as blue collar, fields featured a labor force where less than a tenth of the population had a Bachelor's degree or higher, less than half had some college or an Associates, and less than 80% had graduated high school. Overall the least educated occupational field was agriculture, ranking dead last on all educational levels. Here only 55.4% had graduated high school, roughly one fifth (20.8%) had some college education or an Associates degree and only 6.8% had a Bachelor's degree or higher. While the largest occupational field, that consisting of professionals and relating occupations was also the largest field, the fields with lower educational attainment combined were larger than the professional and managerial fiedls combined. Overall 38.02% were employed in the professional and managerial fields while 61.89% were employed in the other white and blue collar fields were those with a Bachelor's degree or higher constituted less than a third of the work force.[1]

The percent of the labor force in the Professional/Managerial and relating occupations, white collar occupations and blue collar occupations.[1]

The educational attainment of employed civilians age 25 to 64 according to occupational field.[1]


Educational attainment among the population aged 25 and above varied rather slightly with geography region. The population of the Northeastern United States, which had the smallest population of any region with thirty-six million residents, had the highest percentage of high-school and college graduates. The western United States had the highest pecentage of those with some college or an Associates degree and ranked second for college graduates. The South which had by far the largest population with roughly sixty-six million people had the lowest educational attainment at every level. The proportion of high school graduates was the largest in the mid-west while the proportion of those with some college or an Associates degree was the second and that of those with a Bachelor's degree or higher was the third largest of any region. Overall it is fair to assume that the Northeast followed by the Western states were the most educated regions in the US on the college level, with the Mid-west leading on the High-school level and the South falling behind on all levels.[1]

Social class and education

Educational attainment is one of the primary indicators of social class in the United States.[5] While the American social class system is vaguely defined concept with many contradicting theories,[6][7] educational attainment emerges as one of the top measurements of social class. Not only is a high educational attainment a status symbol by itself but it also is very closely related to the other two main indicators of social class: occupation and income. A graduate degree and the roughly seven to eight years of post-secondary education serve as the main requirement for entering "The professions" and becoming part of the professional middle class.[5] While education is not of as much value when considering the upper class, where status is simply passed down from generation to generation, it is key into becoming a more privileged member of the American middle class.[5][7] Overall, educational attainment is the main entrance barrier into more privileged parts of the middle class as it is not only of high value but is also the requirement for becoming a professional and earning the corresponding income.[5] The only exception are entrepreneurs who can rank anywhere in the class system but are usually not referred to as professional middle class unless they are of the professions.

In the United States it also important to differentiate between the statistical middle class, often defined as consisting of those who are neither rich nor poor, and the professional middle class. Recent research has shown that not only is the statistical middle of society (those with income roughly 80% to 120% of the national median or members of the mid-quintile) no longer able to afford the lifestyle indicative of the middle class,[8] but there also seems to a widening income gap in between those who may be described as being middle class. Those in the statisical middle may have to fear lay-offs and cost-cutting downsizing as well as out-sourcing, while those in the professional middle class are largely immune to economic fluctuations and can enjoy upper-middle range incomes even in the face of recessions. As stated above education is the main requirement of becoming a member of the professional middle class and thus is also key to economic security as well as comfortable lifestyle.[5]

The following template illustrates the relationship between income, social class and education:[9][2][10][11][5][7][8][6]

Class USA.png

See also

US related topics


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 US Census Bureau report on educational attainment in the United States, 2003. URL accessed on 2006-07-31.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 US Census Bureau, Educational Attainment during the 2000 Census. URL accessed on 2006-07-28.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Educational attainment and median household income. URL accessed on 2006-09-24.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Personal income and educational attainment, US Census Bureau. URL accessed on 2006-09-24.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Ehrenreich, Barbara (1989). Fear of Falling, The Inner Life of the Middle Class, New York, NY: Harper Collins. 0-06-0973331.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Middle class according to The Drum Major Institute for public policy. URL accessed on 2006-07-25.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Fussel, Paul (1983). Class, A Guide through the American status system, New York, NY: Touchstone. 0-671-79225-3.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Middle income can't buy Middle class lifestyle. URL accessed on 2006-07-25.
  9. 2005 Economic Survey, income data. US Census Bureau.
  10. US Census Bureau, net worth quintiles 1999. URL accessed on 2006-07-28.
  11. New York Times, definition of class and occupational prestige. URL accessed on 2006-07-28.

Social stratification: Social class
Bourgeoisie Upper class Ruling class Nobility White-collar
Petite bourgeoisie Upper middle class Creative class Gentry Blue-collar
Proletariat Middle class Working class Nouveau riche Pink-collar
Lumpenproletariat Lower middle class Lower class Old Money Gold-collar
Slave class Underclass Classlessness
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