For the first time in history, a bigger share of American women than men have college degrees

Old girls’ club.
Old girls’ club.
Image: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
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Women have out-enrolled men at the undergraduate level in the US since the late 1970s, but only in the past year has the percentage of women with a bachelor’s degree in the US surpassed the percentage of men with one. In 2014, 32% of women in the US had attainted a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 31.9% of men, according to data from the US Census Bureau.

World Bank data show women outnumber men in the US by about 0.5% of the total population. So, although the total number of women with degrees surpassed men over a decade ago, only recently did this number become statistically significant. For reference, the difference of 0.1% represents about 8 million more women than men.

More of the US population is going to college today than ever before. The percentage of adults 25 and older in the US with at least a bachelor’s degree topped 30% in 2011. And the number of those who are women has been steadily creeping higher faster than men. In 1960, there were 1.6 male undergraduates in the US for every female undergraduate. By 2000, there were 1.3 female undergraduates for every male undergraduate.

Women’s growing interest in attending college is generally attributed to women’s increased participation in the workforce in the 1960s and 1970s, the increasing availability of birth control in that era, and an increase in the average age of a first marriage for women by about 2.5 years in the 1970s.

Today, women have moved well beyond gender parity in undergraduate degree attainment. This may have to do with the fact that men and women value a college degree differently. A 2011 Pew study found that 50% of women who had graduated from a four-year college or university thought their education was a good investment, while only 37% of men thought so. In the same study, 77% of respondents said they see a college degree as a necessity for women to succeed, while only 68% said the same for men.

While women may value an undergraduate degree more than men, men in the US still outnumber women in their attainment of both professional and doctoral degrees and continue to earn more on average than women, despite women having reached parity at the undergraduate level.