More Long Islanders have college degrees

Graduates listen during the commencement at Farmingdale State

Graduates listen during the commencement at Farmingdale State College. (May 15, 2011) (Credit: Ed Betz)

More Long Islanders are college-educated, a positive trend that has also exposed educational disparities between communities, according to new census figures released today.

In Nassau County, 41 percent of people 25 or older have at least a bachelor's degree, up from 35 percent in 2000. The rate in Suffolk jumped from 27.5 percent to 32 percent over the same period.

Those are the highest levels on record, experts say. The trend is based on 2008-2010 American Community Survey estimates for communities with populations of 20,000 or more.

"It looks like we've made some real progress," said Seth Forman, chief planner for the Long Island Regional Planning Council.

In 1990, an analysis of census data showed 30 percent of Nassau residents and 23 percent of those in Suffolk had earned a four-year college degree.

Forman credits Nassau's edge over Suffolk to more high-income communities and well-schooled immigrants.

"A very large percentage of their immigrant flow are college-educated Asians," many of whom have settled on the Great Neck peninsula, he said.

The Town of North Hempstead, where those villages are located, had the highest percentage of people with bachelor's degrees or higher, at 51.4 percent, according to the census survey.

Garden City ranked No. 1 in that category, at 65.5 percent. But the rate in neighboring Hempstead Village was just 14.7 percent.

That community is predominantly black and Hispanic with a median household income of $51,000. Garden City, predominantly white, boasts a median income of $136,000.

Nationally, educational attainment disparities along race, income and gender lines have "intensified over time," said Mikyung Ryu, associate director of the American Council on Education's Center for Policy Analysis in Washington, D.C.

Despite college enrollment gains by minorities between 1997 and 2007, two-thirds of undergraduate degrees were awarded to whites in 2007, Ryu found in a study last year. Minorities, however, accounted for nearly half of the growth in associate degrees awarded during the period studied.

Another factor is the ability to afford a higher education. Only 8.3 percent of residents earning less than $36,000 a year earned a bachelor's degree by age 24, according to Ryu's analysis.

Michael Zweig, an economist who directs Stony Brook University's Center for Study of Working Class Life, said many working-class families simply don't expect their children to attend four-year colleges. Their needs are served by affordable, vocational-focused community colleges.

In Hempstead Village, an additional 6.4 percent of residents have an associate degree, the survey found.

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