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Educational attainment in the United States: Map


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This graph shows the educational attainment since 1947.

The educational attainment of the U.S. 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 spending more years in formal educational programs. Post-secondary education is valued very highly by American society and is one of the main determinants of class and status. As with income, levels differ by race, age, household configuration and geography. 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 as a whole is proceeding further in formal educational programs, income and educational attainment remain directly linked.

Educational Attainment in Social Theory

Bourdieu and cultural capital

Many scholars have studied educational attainment in the US as a form of social reproduction and stratification. In 1977, Pierre Bourdieu presented the idea that education leads to social reproduction and a stratified society by honoring the cultural capital of elite classes. Students who possess the valued cultural capital, according to Bourdieu, are rewarded with high academic achievement. When elite class members enter the workforce, they are channeled into high paying jobs and powerful positions within society, while those who did not achieve the same level of academic success fall into subordinate occupations and status levels. By rewarding the desired cultural capital with high academic achievement, upper classes are able and prepared to reach higher levels of educational attainment. Members of the working class, on the other hand, are not rewarded for their cultural capital in schools, and are instead socialized for working class jobs.

Lareau and concerted cultivation

Annette Lareau also addresses the factors that lead to social stratification in educational attainment. Lareau’s idea of concerted cultivation refers to an active involvement of parents in a child’s learning and development experiences by creating and controlling organized activities for their children. According to Lareau, middle class parents engage in concerted cultivation to teach their children, while lower and working class parents do not. Laureau further explains that schools firmly encourage and expect parents to use concerted cultivation as a child-rearing strategy. The child-rearing practices of lower and working class families thus do not comply with the standards of educational institutions. As a result, lower and working class students develop a sense of “distance, distrust, and constraint” in educational institutions, while children of middle class families gain a sense of entitlement. These differences in child rearing practices lead to children of lower and working class families to lack the necessary life skills that the children of the middle class possess, further isolating them from educational opportunities.

Collins and credentialism

Randall Collins contributed the idea of credentialism to the study of class-based differences in educational attainment. Collins maintains that public schools are socializing institutions that teach and reward middle class values of competition and achievement. Anglo-Protestant elites are selectively separated from other students and placed into prestigious schools and colleges, where they are trained to hold positions of power. By teaching middle-class culture through the public education system, the elite class ensures a monopoly over positions of power, while others acquire the credentials to compete in a subordinate job market and economy. In this way, schools of medicine, law, and elite institutions have remained closed to members of lower classes.

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. 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%. The greatest increases in educational attainment were documented in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. In the 1950s and much of the 1960s high school graduates constituted about 50% of those considered adults (25 and above). The young adults aged between 25 and 29, percentage of high school graduates was roughly 50% in 1950 versus 90% today.


Overall, women have surpassed men in terms of completing secondary and post-secondary education with the gender gap almost completely reversed. In 2006, 10.3% of males and 8.3% of females dropped out of high school. In 2005/2006, women earned 62.1% of Associate's degrees, 57.5% of Bachelor's degrees, 60.0% of Master's degrees, and 48.9% of Doctorates. In 2016/2017, women are projected to earn 64.2% of Associate's degrees, 59.9% of Bachelor's degrees, 62.9% of Master's degrees, and 55.5% of Doctorates.


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 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 major ethnic group for which high school graduates constituted less than 80% of the population. This large 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 Whites, 17.3% of non-Hispanic Blacks, 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 non-Hispanic whites, 87.6% of Asian Americans, 80.0% of African Americans, and only 57% of Hispanics or Latinos having graduated from high school.

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

A 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.

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 from 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 thirty percentage points among Hispanics or Latinos.


Income by education and gender.

Educational attainment has 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 from 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 Statesmarker for all sexes, races and levels of educational attainment was $36,308 annually.

Criteria Overall Less than 9th grade High school drop-out High school graduate Some college Associates degree Bachelor's degree Bachelor'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

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

The change in median personal and household income 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 has been decreasing ever since. In 1991 the median household income in the USmarker 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 extent of chorinical fluctuations 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.

Year Overall Median Less than 9th grade High school drop-out High school graduate Some college Associates degree Bachelor's degree Bachelor'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

Income by education and race.

Among the races, educational attainment retains its dramatic effect on average income which varies significantly at each educational level. European Americans (White Americans) had the highest average income at every level of educational attainment. However, the proportion of those having college degrees is greater among Asian Americans than among non-Hispanic whites, and 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 were second highest on the college graduate level and had the highest overall income among the general population. They also 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.


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

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 from 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 employment fields feature a population where over 80% had graduated from 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 from high school. Overall the least educated occupational field was agriculture, ranking dead last on all educational levels. Here only 55.4% had graduated from 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 fields 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.


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

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 percentage 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 Midwest 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 Midwest leading on the High-school level and the South falling behind on all levels.

Social class and education

Educational attainment is one of the primary indicators of social class in the United States. While the American social class system is vaguely defined concept with many contradicting theories, 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 is also 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. Education is a major key in becoming a more privileged member of the American middle class. 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. 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 Statesmarker 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, but there also seems to a widening income gap in between those who may be described as being middle class. Those in the statistical 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 a comfortable lifestyle.

See also


  1. Bourdieu, P. (1977) Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction. In: Karabel, J., & Halsey, A. H. (eds.) Power and Ideology in Education. Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 487-511.
  2. Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal Childhoods; Class, Race, and Family Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  3. Collins, R. (1979). The Credential Society; An Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification. New York, NY: Academic Press, 1979.
  4. Percentage of high school dropouts among persons 16 through 24 years old (status dropout rate), by sex and race/ethnicity: Selected years, 1960 through 2006
  5. Historical summary of faculty, students, degrees, and finances in degree-granting institutions: Selected years, 1869-70 through 2005-06
  6. Degrees conferred by degree-granting institutions, by level of degree and sex of student: Selected years, 1869-70 through 2016-17

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