About 30 percent of U.S. adults 25 and older had at least a bachelor's degree in 2011, the highest level in the six decades that the statistic has been tracked, but disparities in earnings for those college graduates remain, the Census Bureau reported Thursday.
The data the bureau released also showed that those with a bachelor's degree and other advanced degrees earned more than those with less education and had lower rates of unemployment during the recent recession.
"For the first time since we began [surveying] education in the United States, 30 percent have a bachelor's degree or higher," said Kurt Bauman, chief of the bureau's Education and Social Stratification Branch, calling the threshold a "notable milestone."
Long Island's educational attainment level is higher, with 36 percent of residents 25 and older having a bachelor's degree or more, according to the 2008-10 American Community Survey released last fall. In Nassau County, 41 percent had at least a bachelor's degree, compared with 32 percent for Suffolk and 32.5 percent for New York State.
Officials said that as recently as 1998, fewer than 25 percent had acquired at least a bachelor's degree. It was 5 percent in 1947 when the bureau first surveyed residents on education.
"It is an indication that higher education is opening up in the United States and more people are taking advantage of that. That's good," said Michael Zweig, an economics professor at Stony Brook University and director of its Center for Study of Working Class Life.
The data also found that the field in which people obtained their degrees was also critical to earnings. Those with professional degrees, such as lawyers and doctors, and those in the science and engineering fields earned the most.
Zweig noted disparities in these earnings. For example, men possessing at least a bachelor's degree in science and/or engineering earned an average of $81,437 in 2009, while women were paid $57,177. Non-Hispanic whites of either gender earned $75,540 on average, but blacks earned only $55,371 and Hispanics earned $55,364.
"With these increasing educational levels does not come a reduction in inequality between men and women, nor whites and blacks," he said.
The data also showed gains by Hispanics and blacks in earning bachelor's degrees between 2001 and 2011. The percent of Hispanics with such degrees grew from 4.4 percent to 6.1 percent, Bauman said. The percentage of blacks with a bachelor's degree grew from 6.7 percent in 2001 to 7.6 percent in 2011, he said.
Luis Valenzuela, executive director of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance, said the increase in educational attainment among Hispanics was not "unexpected," and it reflected "the integration of youth into the larger society. If we had something like the Dream Act, those numbers would be larger."
The statistics also showed that those with a bachelor's degree or higher in January 2010 weathered the recession better with lower unemployment rates: 5.9 percent for those with bachelor's degrees, and 4 percent for those with advanced degrees, compared with 17.9 percent for those with less than a high school education and 10 percent for high school graduates.