by Janel N Spencer
The number of college graduates is at an all-time high. A recent report published by the Lumina Foundation found that Americans with two- and four-year college degrees increased 38.3 percent from 2010 to 2011.
Last year, 33 percent of Americans held a bachelor's degree, and the study predicts that at the current rate of increase, 48.1 percent of adults 25 to 64 will have a bachelor's or associates degree by 2025.
To give a little historical perspective, in America in 1940, less than 5 percent of those 25 and older had a bachelor's degree. By 1975, 22 percent of those between 25 and 29 had a bachelor's degree.
In 1995 that number only slightly increased to 24 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The number of master's and doctoral degree graduates is rising considerably as well, and the attainment of bachelor's degrees has been rising more quickly for young women in the past decade than for young men. There has also been an influx of professionals returning to college, contributing to the increase.
The digital age as well as the recent recession both have played roles in the increase of graduates, as many students remained in school longer and professionals went back to school - many entering technological fields.
The benefits of this strategy are apparent when taking a look at how college graduates have fared in comparison to their less-educated peers. While employment has dropped since 2007 for those without a college education, employment for graduates with a bachelor's degree has rise by 9 percent.
Unemployment for four-year graduates between the ages of 25 and 34 is now at 3.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while unemployment for high school graduates in the same age group is at 11.8 percent.
Economists, meanwhile, are hopeful that the rising education levels will help the economy in the long haul.
Although rates are up and rising for all Americans, President and Chief Executive of the Lumina Foundation Jamie Merisotis reported that the educational achievement gaps still present in the system are clearly linked to persistent inequities defined by race, income and class that continue to plague our nation.
And the exponentially rising inflation of college costs certainly does not help close these gaps - making college increasingly out of reach for those who start at the bottom.
Low-income students are less likely to graduate from high school, less likely to enroll in college after high school and less likely to graduate from college after enrolling, according to higher education policy analyst Tom Mortenson.
Only about 1 out of 10 Americans whose parents were in the lowest income quartile held four-year college degrees by age 24 in 2011, compared with about 7 in 10 among those in the highest quartile. This trend has remained consistent for decades.
Moreover, even with the increase, higher education experts are stressing that the rates are still actually very low: according to the National Student Clearinghouse, only about half of first-time college freshman who enrolled in 2006 graduated by 2012.
The increase in college graduates is at a rate well short of what is demanded by workforce needs as well, reported the Lumina Foundation. This demand is especially evident in the STEM fields.
"There are worrisome signs that the demand for high-skilled talent is increasing more rapidly than we're actually educating people," Merisotis said. "We can't expect our citizens to meet the demands of the 21st-century economy and society without a 21st-century education."
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