What the 1940 Census Tells Us About Today

Apr 6, 2012 by Tom Dellner

The National Archives recently released the complete results of the 1940 U.S. Census, along with some fascinating comparative statistics that indicate just how much American society has changed over the past 70 years. One of the most interesting comparisons focused on higher education.

In 1940, less than five percent of Americans age 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree or higher. By 2010, that figure had climbed to 28.2 percent, and all indications are that that statistic will continue to rise.

So what does this mean? It means that an undergraduate degree is increasingly becoming table stakes in the American workforce. In other words, we’re rapidly approaching the point where a college degree is less a point of distinction or a competitive advantage than it is a prerequisite for success. It’s essentially—well—essential.

A corollary to this trend is that earning a graduate-level degree is a more effective way to truly distinguish yourself from the competition in a crowded workforce. Statistics bear this out, as well. While almost a third of the population has a bachelor’s degree, less than eight percent have a master’s degree and only three percent have earned a doctorate, according the Census Bureau’s report “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2011.”

And these advanced degrees pay off, as well. Another census study reveals that the median earnings of full-time workers who have a bachelor’s degree is $57,026 (those who have attended no college earn an average of $34,197). Those with a master’s degree have an average salary of $69,958. And individuals with a doctorate earn $88,867.

It turns out your parents were right: when it comes to education, it pays to aim high!


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