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Educational Attainment


In 2009, 89.8 percent of female and male young adults aged 18–24 had earned a high school or general equivalency degree; this is an increase from the 1972 level of 82.3 percent (data not shown in graph images or in data tables on this site).1 While there has not been a sex disparity in high school educational attainment, a large disparity in post-secondary educational attainment has been eliminated or reversed over the last four decades. In 1969–1970, men earned a majority of every type of post-secondary degree, while in 2008–2009, women earned more than half of all associate's, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees, and nearly half of all first professional degrees. The most significant increase has been in the proportion of first professional degree earners who are women, which jumped from 5.3 percent in 1969–1970 to 49.0 percent in 2008–2009. Although the sex disparity in degrees awarded has disappeared or reversed, there are still disparities by discipline. For example, women are underrepresented in science and technology and overrepresented in education and nursing.2

There are also racial and ethnic disparities in educational attainment. Although slightly more than one-third of all young adult women had a college degree in 2008–2010, this ranged from 15 percent or less of Hispanic, non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander women to more than 60 percent of non-Hispanic Asian women. Hispanic and non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaska Native young adult women were most likely to lack a high school diploma (27.6 and 14.9 percent, respectively). Education confers great benefit to health status both through greater knowledge of risk and protective factors, as well as the economic resources to facilitate healthy behaviors.3 Increasing educational attainment will depend, in part, on improving school quality and the affordability of college.

1 Chapman, C., Laird, J., Ifill, N., and KewalRamani, A. (2011). Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 1972–2009 (NCES 2012-006). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Accessed 5/1/12.

2 White House Council on Women and Girls. Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being. March 2011. Accessed 4/14/12.

3 Education and Health, National Poverty Center Policy Brief #9, University of Michigan, 2007. Accessed 5/1/12.



Degrees Awarded to Women, by Type, 1969-1970 and 2008-2009
Degree Type Percent of Degrees
1969-1970 2008-2009
*Includes fields of dentistry, medicine, optometry, osteopathic medicine, pharmacy, podiatry, veterinary medicine, chiropractic, public health, law, and theological professions.
**Includes Doctor of Philosophy degree and degrees awarded for fulfilling specialized requirements in professional fields such as education, musical arts, and engineering. Does not include first professional degrees. Source: Snyder T, Dillow S. Digest of Education Statistics 2010 (NCES 2011015). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC. 2011. Accessed 5/1/2012.
Associate's Degree 43.0 62.1
Bachelor's Degree 43.1 57.2
Master's Degree 39.7 60.4
First Professional Degree* 5.3 49.0
Doctoral Degree** 13.3 52.3
Educational Attainment Among Women Aged 25–29, by Race/Ethnicity, 2008–2010
Race/Ethnicity Percent of Women
No High School Diploma High School Diploma or Equivalent Some College, Less than 4-Year Degree Bachelor’s Degree or Higher
Source: U.S. Census Bureau. 2008–2010 American Community Survey – Public Use Microdata Sample. Analysis conducted by the Maternal and Child Health Bureau.
Total 10.9 21.1 33.6 34.5
Non-Hispanic White 5.9 19.1 34.1 41.0
Non-Hispanic Black 11.7 25.5 40.7 22.1
Hispanic 27.6 27.5 29.7 15.2
Non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaska Native 14.9 28.9 42.1 14.2
Non-Hispanic Asian 4.9 9.9 22.2 63.0
Non-Hispanic Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander 7.7 34.4 45.4 12.6
Non-Hispanic Multiple Race 7.4 19.3 40.0 33.3