The share of Americans with a college education has been increasing steadily for generations, but it doesn’t look like the rising tide that lifts all boats. If anything, the country has become increasingly stratified over time.
Back in 1940, less than 5 percent of Americans 25 and older had bachelor’s degrees. Now, according to data released by the Census Bureau in December, nearly 28 percent do. For the first time since 2000, it is possible to get a comprehensive view of those numbers for every county. The Chronicle examined this recent release—a sample of information collected from residents of the United States between 2005 and 2009, as part of the American Community Survey—alongside decennial census data released since 1940 to see how those numbers have changed.
For example, in Maury County, Tenn., the proportion of residents with bachelor’s degrees has not kept pace with that rate in the rest of the country, rising from 2 percent to 16 percent since 1940, a figure that also puts it behind the rest of Tennessee. La Plata County, Colo., had a similar attainment rate in 1940—4 percent. But by 1990, the population had doubled, and the rate was 28 percent. The most recent numbers put the share at 42 percent. An interactive map at http://chronicle.com/census lets readers explore these data.
One thing that jumps out of the data is the large educational gap experienced by blacks and Hispanics. That can be difficult to examine fairly over time because of changes in how the census has handled race and ethnicity, but a clear contrast exists with college degrees in the population as a whole.
For instance, the census estimates that in 2009, 28 percent of Americans 25 and older had at least four-year degree.s But the rate for black Americans was just 17 percent, and for Hispanic Americans only 13 percent.