In the next few weeks college students will be flowing back onto campuses, and the data show there will be a lot more women than men in lecture halls. That continues a trend that analysts have been seeing for years now, and it is reshaping the country and its politics.
On the most basic level, the number and percentage of Americans with at least bachelor’s degrees has been rising steady, climbing nearly 30 points in the last 50 years.
Back in 1970, only 11% of Americans 25 or older had bachelor’s degrees. The number has risen every decade to roughly 38% in 2021, according to the data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.
The jump since 2010 has been especially sharp, and one of the big drivers has been that more women are completing their four-year degrees. In fact, in the last decade, women surpassed men in college completion.
In 2021, the census found that the number of women with degrees was about 3 points higher than the figure for men — 39.1% compared with 36.6%. And looking back at the history of those figures shows how remarkable the change is.
Back in 1970, about 8% of 25-plus women had bachelor’s degrees. That was about 6 points below where American men were at that time. The difference actually grew slightly in 1980, but then women began closing the gap, and quickly. By 2010, the two sexes were almost even, before women surged ahead in the years since.
And to be clear, there is no reason to believe the trend is going to reverse any time soon. The latest college enrollment figures show a wide divide between the sexes over who is enrolled in college.
In 2021, the census estimated that 21.1 million Americans were enrolled in college, according to the annual American Community Survey. About 12 million of them people were female, and about 9.2 million were male. That’s a difference of about 2.6 million, or a 56%-to-44% split.
In other words, the current figures certainly suggest the gap is only likely to grow in coming years.
The data have a lot of meaning beyond who is paying tuition or paying off student loans. They have the potential to change who and how men and women marry (for decades, data showed men married people of equal or lower educational attainment and women tended to marry those with equal or more education). And in the longer term, the numbers could have a real impact on who sits in the corner office in the business world. High-end positions tend to require more education, and over time women seem more and more likely to be the applicants with degrees.