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Educational Attainment in America: What the Trends and Statistics Say

Written by College Cliffs Team At, our team, comprising seasoned educators and counselors, is committed to supporting students on their journey through graduate studies. Our advisors, holding advanced degrees in diverse fields, provide tailored guidance, current program details, and pragmatic tips on navigating application procedures.

Reviewed by Linda Weems I got started researching colleges and universities about 10 years ago while exploring a second career. While my second career ended up being exactly what I’m doing now, and I didn’t end up going to college, I try to put myself in your shoes every step of the way as I build out College Cliffs as a user-friendly resource for prospective students.

Updated: March 18, 2024, Reading time: 20 minutes

In the past years, we have seen a steady increase in the cost of a college education. This resulted in students facing a debt crisis, and some even contemplated whether going to college is a good choice for them or not. 

Educational Attainment

In a survey conducted by Gallup Poll of more than 2,000 adult Americans in 2013, it was revealed that 70% of adults believed college is very important, while 23% thought higher education is fairly important, and a mere 6% surmised it is not important at all. 

Understanding the Value of College Education

There have been numerous types of research concluding that having a college diploma gives any graduate an edge on almost any measure–from lower unemployment rates to higher earnings. In essence, those who fail to get a college degree may find it challenging to succeed in the job market since they lack the necessary educational credentials.

The research noted that one-third of adult Americans without a four-year college degree decide not to apply for a job they believe they are qualified for simply because that job needed a bachelor’s degree. 

Holding a graduate diploma opens many opportunities and benefits, and the lack of it means you are bound to face potential challenges. But despite this, Americans have mixed attitudes about how effective four-year college diplomas are or how important higher education is. 

However, most college graduates can attest to how their educational background has positively impacted their professional and personal development.

About 62% of college graduates with a two or four-year degree believe their academic background was critical in their intellectual and personal growth, while 53% say a college education is not at all useful for career advancements.

Although many college graduates look at their education experience positively, there’s still a substantial number of Americans who express reservations about how higher education can prepare students for the workforce.

As a whole, only 16% of Americans look at four-year degree programs as the only way to prepare a student for a well-paying job in the present economic state. Some 26% feel that those certification programs in a technical, professional, or vocational field are enough, and 12% believe two-year associate degree programs are enough. 

Top Compelling Reasons Why You Should Attend College

After high school, attending higher education may or may not be your option. Considering Americans have collectively owed more than $1.5 trillion in student loans alone, you may somehow ask yourself the dreaded question: is college worth it?

Statistics say getting a college degree is important, even if this means taking on a student loan. More often than not, getting an education after high school– whether at a community college or a traditional four-year university, will give you better opportunities. Below are some data-backed reasons why you must go to college. 

College Increases Your Earning Potential

Ever heard of the saying “college is an investment in your future”? It’s true! In fact, college degree holders between the ages of 25 and 34 earn a median income of roughly $74,600 in 2021. According to information from the National Center for Education Statistics, those without a college degree earned only $39,700

College Helps You Gain Job Security 

Think about the many bills you have to pay, the kitchen pantry you need to fill, and the premium Netflix account you have to keep running. All these things can cost a lot. Having a steady job gives you peace of mind, knowing that when payment dues arrive, you’ll be able to secure your payments with fewer worries.

When you have a college degree, getting jobless is less likely to happen. In 2017, the unemployment rate of college degree holders among Americans was 2.5%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate of those holding only a high school diploma but did not pursue college is at 4.6%, almost double the rate. 

College Gets You Health Insurance 

According to Kim Cook, the National College Access Network executive director, a non-profit organization, having a degree means you have better job opportunities to support your family. When you have a job, you get to take advantage of the many benefits a company offers, like health insurance. 

Thus, a better education means better chances of obtaining employer-provided health insurance. In a 2016 College Board Report, 54% of full-time workers with high school diplomas were provided with health insurance, 66% of four-year degree holders, and 70% of advanced degree holders. 

College Helps you Learn More Valuable Skills 

Colleges and universities are home to different degrees that will jumpstart your career in the future. But what if you don’t have the knack for business management courses? Or, do you dislike finance degrees or the arts and sciences are not to your liking? Does this mean that you forego your college schooling?

Of course not. Several community colleges offer technical programs. These schools are aimed at training students for a specific field of study. You can earn your associate degree in two years or obtain a certificate at a lesser time than that, usually in a few months to one year.

Check out the Occupation Finder tool by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to look for possible career options based on the type of course you need or the median pay of each degree.

For instance, you might want to become a dental hygienist. With a median income of $74,070, you can obtain an associate degree as a dental hygienist shorter than the usual four-year courses.

College Broadens your Horizon

Say you are interested in topics like sociology or philosophy– both that do not lead to a specific profession, going to college is still worth your investment. Roughly 90% of employers today prefer hiring applicants with very broad skills like problem-solving or critical thinking.

These are skills that are equally important, according to a report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities in 2014. More than the degree you’re studying in college, enrolling in tertiary education presents you with many helpful opportunities in your professional life.

Plus, college is also the chance to develop not only your intellectual capacities. This is also a way to meet new people and explore new places.

You Might Meet your Soulmate in College!

While this is not an important reason why you should enroll in college, the thought of meeting a soulmate as you work your way through university life is a built-in college perk. According to a Facebook study in 2013, about 28% of married couples meet their significant other at college. 

If you’re finding other helpful reasons why getting a college degree is crucial, think about the possibility of dating someone in college. It’s not necessary, but the thought is undeniably exciting.

College Can Help You Expand your Career Options 

A college degree is one key to better career options. Since the Great Recession, 99% of jobs went to workers with some college education, according to a 2016 report by the Center on Education and the Workforce of Georgetown University. One sociology instructor at Virginia Tech, Corey Miles, asserts that college gives you better options. 

College Helps Your Achieve Financial Stability

Holding a college disorder not only helps you to earn more. This also helps you be financially more secure than your peers who fail to make it to college. If you hold a bachelor’s degree (or even higher), you have the chance to have a retirement plan.

According to a Lumina Foundation paper, you can earn more money from savings accounts, investments in stocks, or even real estate. 

College Provides Your With Lasting Connections

Come hell or high water, getting that dream job often boils down to who you know. One study said 44% of Americans looking for jobs said some of the factors involved in their job search entailed some relationship– a family member, a friend, a professional connection, or a friend. 

The people you meet during your college life—in campus professional organizations, your roommates, your mentors, professors, sororities and fraternities, social groups, or college clubs—can give you a leg up in the job market. 

College Helps you Get Support When Launching a Business

Inspired by the success of Mark Zuckerberg, many students view entrepreneurship as a good career path. While having a college diploma is necessary to become a successful entrepreneur, having a degree in this field will give you that edge.

A third of college graduates in 2014 became successful entrepreneurs, based on a report by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. 

Today, most colleges and universities in the US are beefing up their entrepreneurship offerings. Some even add opportunities and courses for students to obtain hands-on experience. Other business schools, like Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School, have on-campus incubators designed for Entrepreneurship students.

Here, you are provided with mentorship, ample workspace, and free services like accounting and legal counsel. 

Becoming Successful in College

Educational Attainment

There are several reasons why after high school, some students sadly decide college is not for them. Some feel college is not necessary; others believe it is very expensive. Understanding the importance of having a college degree is the first step toward getting that college diploma.

To make the most of college (four years of it or even more!), figure out how you can succeed even beyond earning the degree. After all, the key to a thriving future is to be successful in college, right? 

Below are some helpful tips to become successful in college.

Easier said than done, right? Not really.

It’s just about becoming a doer instead of moping around, waiting for somebody else to step up and take the lead. For instance, if you have group activities and projects, lead the group, and initiate a group meeting to help get things started.

Or, you can practice scheduling your appointments yourself over your breaks, or speak first during class discussions. These are simple yet very helpful ways for you to become a great initiator.

REMEMBER: Reaching out and asking for help is okay. After all, part of your tuition fees and miscellaneous fees pay for these extra college services.

REMEMBER: Healthy communication with your college professor is beneficial. Who knows, this might lead to a letter of recommendation, a job, or even a shadowing opportunity. 

REMEMBER: When it comes to your time for work, school, and your friends, strike a balance! Joining unnecessary college activities may become a burden in the long run. It’s better to nip it in the bud even before it overwhelms your schedule. 

Did you know?

The lack of sleep affects your brain’s ability to consolidate, recall, and acquire information. It has long been proven that sleep-deprived students often end up having trouble maintaining focus on their classes. It also makes it hard for them to convert short-term memories into long-term memories.

Practicing a healthy bedtime routine and making sleep a top priority are two of the most crucial keys to becoming successful in college (and your life after). 

REMEMBER: Every time you feel like giving up, think of all the reasons you enrolled in college in the first place. Revisit your goals and see how far you have gone. It’s also great to speak with professionals in your field to better understand and refine your goals.

REMEMBER: Try to bond with your friends beyond watching movies together. Keep open communication with your family members whom you turn to when you’re having a bad day, feeling homesick, or thinking of yourself as a failure. To become successful, you need people to have faith in you when you’re starting to lose yours. 

Higher Education: The Economic Value

Many people are still not convinced about the importance of obtaining a college degree, considering the costs that go with it. Some potential college students are left contemplating whether the expensive tuition and the never-ending student loan debts are worth giving a thought.

Sadly, going to college is not an option for students who come from financially-struggling families. Look closely, and you’ll see how the benefits of earning a degree far outweigh the expensive cost of attending college. 

The benefits you get from a college degree will justify the cost you spent when getting that degree.

While wages between college and high school graduates do not vary much until a few years of work experience, degree holders are likely to earn a lot more during their entire working lives than those who only have high school diplomas.

According to the US Census Bureau, workers holding a college degree earn about $2 million, $1.5 million for associate degrees, and $1.2 million for high school diploma holders during their entire careers.

The steady increase in one’s earnings is just one of the many good reasons you should acquire a college degree. While college schooling is really expensive, there are public institutions that cost less than private schools. Students in public colleges and universities normally pay around $8,000 a year, including living expenses, books, and tuition.

Community colleges are also good choices as you only need to shell out around $1,300 for your annual tuition.

Getting a college degree is expensive. But once you earn a degree, you get to earn more money in your entire working life than those who fail to finish college. Look at it this way: the expensive cost of going to the university must be viewed as a type of investment that has many returns later in life. 

Higher Education Level Means Better Earning Increase

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, on recent research conducted, noted that, on average, a college graduate can earn up to $78,000 annually, a far cry from what a high school graduate earns at $45,000 a year. That’s more than a $30,000 difference a year or about a 75% premium. Obviously, in the labor market, college graduates earn a hefty wage premium.

Today, the earnings gap between college degree holders and those who fail to enroll in higher education continues to widen. In 2019, the median income for fresh graduates (aged 22-27) holding a degree reached up to $44,000 a year. High school graduates of the same age bracket were recorded to have a median earning of $30,000 a year.

In recent years, the jobless rate for people with college diplomas is at 2.5%. The incidence of poverty among workers with bachelor’s degrees is 3.5 times lower compared to those who only hold high school diplomas.

This is why college education has become more valuable than ever, so valuable that around 99% of the jobs after the great recession went to those college degree holders.

Other Enticing Benefits of Higher Education

Aside from higher paychecks, there are other benefits you get to enjoy when you are a college degree holder. So many college graduates enjoy the chance to work in a place where they want to live. They get to have more recreational time, and their standard of living becomes relatively higher. 

Some other benefits of enrolling in college are also experienced during school. While in college, you can learn so many interesting subjects and different cultures. You will also learn about unfamiliar ideas and theories that you cannot learn when you’re not in college. 

Should You Pursue College? 3 Questions for Making the Decision

Educational Attainment

During your younger years, were you often asked what you wanted to be when you grew up like your 4-year-old mind was supposed to know? Upon reaching middle school, your parents now discussed college majors, universities, and classes.

In high school, you realize you have so much pressure to deal with extra-curricular activities, volunteer work, AP-level classes, and all those things that make you look good to a future college. 

But the problem here is that college is not for everybody. At some point, it’s quite tricky to find out whether you should or should not go to college.

Here are some guide questions to help you reach a sound decision:

1. What do you really want to do?

Knowing what and how your life is years from now is hard, especially when you are a teenager and life hasn’t thrown you so many experiences just yet.

Do you want to be a teacher or a graphic artist? Or how about a major in marine biology or psychology? Maybe you heard about that friend who took up botany and spent one year studying plants, only to realize he wasn’t interested in it at all and eventually decided on a medical degree.

It is fine to switch majors if you’re in the middle of making decisions. In fact, some people opt to do this because college life offers so many different exposures to things that you didn’t realize you liked in the first place. However, college is expensive, and changing from one major to another is costly. 

For many students who have yet to know what they want, taking a gap year is a good idea. This is the time when you can crystallize your decision-making abilities and develop your self-regulation and self-directed skills. One year without college will help broaden your confidence as well. If you aren’t sure what to enroll in, take a gap year.

2. Are you enrolling in college because you want to or because other people expect you to?

One study showed that 30% of students worldwide enroll in college because they believe it is what they must do after high school. 

Going back to your younger years, did you notice how your folks tell you that college was the only path to success? That you should get a degree, get a job, and become wildly successful? Some people think a college diploma is a rite of passage to adulthood. 

However, college is a multi-dollar, four-year (or even more) commitment. Don’t go just because you are pressured to go. Go because that is what you want. Go because you know you made the right decision for yourself.

3. Are you up to the challenge of going to school for another four years (or more)?

Four years is a long time. Not everyone loves the thought of sitting in lectures and writing papers for that long. If four years is just too much for you, that’s okay. This doesn’t make you any less patient or intelligent. A four-year educational journey may not be the best fit for you.

Your alternative is to enroll in a trade school. In recent years, skilled trade work pays very well and is one of the most in-demand jobs. If sitting inside a four-wall room for hours on end is not your liking, consider vocational training. You can learn so many skills like:

These are a few of the numerous skills that lead to in-demand and well-paying jobs. Also, going to a trade school is less expensive than attending university. 

A college education is no doubt your gateway to a more successful career in the future. Never second-guess what having the best educational attainment can bring you. Not only does it significantly improve your probability of employment, increase your income potential, and secure your lifestyle, but it also helps create better opportunities for your future children.

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