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Over 30 Percent of Americans Now Hold a Bachelor's Degree

The proportion of Americans with college degrees has reached a new high — 30.4 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 25 has at least a bachelor's degree, according to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2001, there were 26.4 percent in this age group with this level of education.

In a news release Thursday, Census Bureau Director Robert Groves called the numbers as of March 2011 a "milestone" in the nation's history.

The new figures are based on information from Educational Attainment in the United States: 2011 , a collection of national-level tables from the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement. Other reports from the Census just released look at degree attainment by field of study, demographics, and earning potential. (See Field of Bachelor's Degree in the United States: 2009 and What it's Worth: Field of Training and Economic Status in 2009.)

Looking more closely, the Census reports 50 percent of Asian American over age 25 have at least a bachelor's degree, as well as 34 percent of white Americans, 20 percent of African-Americans, and 14 percent of Hispanics. In the past decade, Hispanics experienced the biggest gains with the number who completed at least a four-year degree rising from 2.1 million to 3.8 million — an increase from 11.1 percent in 2001 to 14.1 percent in 2011. The increase among blacks was 47 percent and among non-Hispanic whites, 24 percent, during that time.

The number of women 25 and over with bachelor's degrees increased 37 percent in the past 10 years, compared to an increase of 23 percent for men, according to the report. Women accounted for 31 million of the 61 million people nationally with a bachelor's degree.

The Census figures confirm the economic value of higher education as Americans with a bachelor's degree had lower rates of unemployment than those with less education in every month from January 2008 to December 2010.

Having a degree also translated into higher earnings. People whose highest level completed was high school and had any earnings averaged $31,000 in 2010. For those whose highest degree was a bachelor's degree, the average was $58,000, the new data show.

The report showed gaps in achievement between high school graduates and adults with a GED. Nearly 73 percent of students with a high school diploma went on to complete at least some postsecondary education, while 43 percent of GED recipients did the same.

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