Exploring the “Some college, no bachelors degree” population

While most of us are familiar with the 10-year cycle of census-taking, many may not be aware that the US Census Bureau also conducts annual sampling of the US population in order to track shifts in population trends in-between the decennial accounting of Americans. The American Community Survey (ACS) data include an array of variables, from household descriptors to earnings and income to level of educational attainment, publishing data in two forms: one-year estimates and five-year estimates. One of the benefits of the ACS data is its granularity. Many of the data points of interest are disaggregated by a combination of sex, age, and race/ethnicity categories. Geography is also a key element of the ACS data, as much of the five-year data are available at the most fine-grain level of a census block and are scaled up to nation-wide data, with various levels-of-detail in-between (ACS Concepts and Definitions).

ACS Educational Attainment Data

Of particular interest for higher education stakeholders is the level of educational attainment of the population that colleges and universities serve. Businesses looking to develop a new entity or expand an existing one into a certain geographic location can utilize educational attainment data to determine whether an area is a viable option for them. Institutions of higher education may evaluate educational attainment data to determine areas where they should target enrollment initiatives, expand marketing and publicity campaigns, or add satellite campuses and programs. 

A fantastic example of a data product that has been created with the ACS data is the Educational Attainment in America website developed by Dr. Kyle Walker at TCU’s Center for Urban Studies. Although the data used (ACS 5-year data from 2011-2015) to create the geospatial visualizations is not the most recently available data, the website allows an end-user to explore visually and numerically the educational attainment of adults 25 years of age and older within a geographic area of interest. The screenshot below shows the educational attainment, indicated by the colors of the dots, of the northern Texas/Metroplex region. Clicking on the image will open the full, interaction version of the website. A word of caution: once you engage with the content of Dr. Walker’s site, you may fail to notice the  minutes flying by as you bounce from one “I wonder about…?” question to the next. 

National Trends in Educational Attainment

As shown in the top-left corner of the image above, the ACS data are reported in varying levels of educational attainment. Although the legend above shows five categories, the raw ACS data delineates 24 different levels of educational attainment ranging from “No schooling completed” to “Doctorate degree.” Having data reported at such a granular level allows an analyst the freedom to aggregate data into larger groupings as needed.

To get a sense of the distribution of highest level of education achieved across the United States, the visualization from the US Census Bureau’s Data Center below shows the percentage of adults (25-years-old or older) in the broad categories from high school diploma or equivalent through graduate/professional degree as a portion of the 25-years-old or older population. Based on the 2019 ACS estimates, approximately 89 percent of adults have at least a high school diploma. This figure can be calculated by adding the percentages of each bar together. The data also show that approximately 33 percent of adults 25 and older have earned a bachelors degree or higher across the United States. By comparison, the percentage of adults with at least a high school diploma in Texas is approximately 83 percent, while over 36 percent of the 25 and older population in Texas have earned a bachelors degree or higher. 

NOTE: In the figure below, the US Census Bureau did not include the approximately 11 percent of the adult population (25 or older) in the US who do not have a high school diploma. Therefore, the five values included in the bar chart below do not equal 100 percent if you add just the included categories together.

Some College, No Bachelors Degree

Of particular interest to the context of this blog post are the second and third categories shown above: “Some college, no degree” and “Associates degree.” At a national level, the US Census Bureau estimates that these categories account for 28.8 percent of adults 25 or older who have accrued some college credits or earned an associates degree, but have not earned a bachelors degree. With more than 218 million adults over the age of 25 estimated in the ACS data who reside in the United States, the 29-percent of “some college, no bachelors degree” group represents more than 63 million individuals across the country.

The map below shows the state-level percentages of adults with some college, but no bachelors degree for the contiguous United States. As shown in the legend at the bottom right corner of the visualization, the range of percentages across US states and territories is 15.86 percent to 37.27 percent, with an average of 29.3 percent. The state/territory with the lowest percentage is the District of Columbia with just under 16 percent of adults with some college, but no bachelors degree. At the high end of the spectrum is Wyoming with just over 37 percent of its adult population (25 or older) in this educational attainment category. By comparison, Texas ranks 19th (28.9 percent) among US states and territories included in the data collection, slightly below the overall national average.

Additional data are embedded within the map below through the use of a tooltip. Hovering over a state with the cursor on your computer, or clicking on a state if you are using a touch-based device, will trigger the launch of the pop-up tooltip that includes more data for the selected state. The top portion of the tooltip will show which state was selected, the number of adults (25 or older) in the state, along with the number and percentage of adults with “some college, no bachelors degree” in that particular state. The bottom portion of the tooltip shows a full breakdown of highest level of educational attainment across six categories ranging from “Less than HS diploma” to “Graduate or Professional Degree.” Adding the percentages of the “Some College, No Degree” and “Associates” degree categories together in the bottom portion of the tooltip pop-up will give you the “Percentage of Total Adults” with “Some College, No Bachelors Degree” that is shown in the top half of the tooltip. 

So what?

As seen in previous posts regarding high school graduation trends and direct-enrollment of high school graduates into higher education, colleges and universities, along with the stakeholders who rely on the continuous improvement of outcomes produced by those institutions, should be concerned about the projected decline in the number of high school graduates towards the end of the decade. This fall-off also means there will be fewer high school graduates to recruit to attend institutions of higher education. For Texans, the concern regarding high school graduates declining is not the major concern, as Texas is projected to experience the highest numeric growth of high school graduates in the country over the next decade. However, the declining percentage of those high school graduates who enroll directly into Texas colleges and universities should be a concern.

Given these issues surrounding high school graduates and direct enrollment, higher education in America will need to develop more robust strategies and mechanisms for capturing the some college, no bachelors degree segment of the population. As shown in the data above, there is a large portion of the adult population in the US who have completed some college, possibly earning an associates degree, but who have not completed bachelors degree. Recapturing a greater number of these adults has the potential to boost not only enrollment at universities, but also the number of graduates, which is key in supporting broad-scale initiatives such as the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s 60x30TX goal of having “at least 60 percent of Texans ages 25-34” with a certificate or degree by 2030.

Next in the series

In the mid-October post, we will be diving more deeply into the “some college, no bachelors degree” adult population within the borders of Texas, exploring geographically and analytically areas of opportunity for Texas universities.

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