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Americans are now more educated than ever

March 2, 2012 at 7:22 AM ET

U.S. Cenusu Bureau /

Amid all the chatter recently about whether President Barack Obama is a “snob” for wanting Americans to be educated or Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorumis anti-education for critizing Obama, many may have missed an important milestone.

The Census Bureau reported last week that a record 30 percent of Americans ages 25 and older have at least a bachelor’s degree. The data, from March 2011, marks first time ever that such high a proportion of Americans have had at least a four-year degree, and it follows decades of gradually improving higher education rates.

In the long term, experts say, that’s good news for the U.S. economy. After all, the majority of the U.S. economy is service-oriented, and that means many Americans who want to get ahead need to find ways to succeed in white-collar settings. Many also believe a highly educated, innovative workforce is one of several key ingredients succeeding against global competitors.

“The future of the U.S. economy is not assembling the computer. The future of the U.S. economy is coming up with a novel design for a semiconductor that gets into a computer, that will then be assembled in some emerging economy,” said Adolfo Laurenti, deputy chief economist with Mesirow Financial.

And yet, such long-term thinking may not feel so great to the many Americans out there who have a degree but either don’t have the job they want – or don’t have a job at all.

The unemployment rate for college graduates, which stood at 4.2 percent in February, is half the unemployment rate for high school grads but still high by historical norms. Also, although a college degree also generally leads to much higher lifelong earnings, many young grads in particular are feeling squeezed these days by low starting salaries.

“(There are) people who are very disappointed that, yes, they can get a white-collar job but that does not imply the financial success that it used to imply for their father’s generation,” Laurenti said.

In addition, many are burdened by student loan debt from earning that degree.

Another issue that has slowly been gaining attention over the past few years is whether every kid should be aiming to go to college. Manufacturers in particular are increasingly complaining that they can’t find skilled workers to run the more complex, sophisticated factories that are now the norm in America.

These people are calling for a return to the type of vocational training that fell out of favor over the past few decades, amid a push to get more kids to go to college.

Laurenti, the economist, said he is tentatively encouraged by more discussion about how to provide that kind of training to keep those types of factories running. But he thinks high schools need to be doing more to help prepare kids who would do well in those type of skilled factory jobs.

“They are not much interested in people with a bachelor’s degree in political science, but it’s not enough to get people who drop out of high school, either,” he said.

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