College degrees awarded per capita in the U.S.A.

As I’m reaching the end of my PhD, I’ve started thinking more about what I’ll be doing afterwards. It’s my dream job to teach and do research as a professor, but the prospects aren’t promising. There’s a ton of competition for academic jobs nowadays, much more so than 20-30 years ago. That made me wonder at lunch yesterday: just how much more competition is there? One way to look at that is to look at the number of degrees awarded.

A common mistake that people make when visualizing the number of degrees awarded each year is that they just report the raw number. That’s not very useful if you want to compare the number of degrees awarded between years (say, to 20 years ago), because as time goes on, our population grows larger. The larger the population is, the more people there are getting degrees. Therefore, it’s important to scale these measures per capita to make a fair comparison.

Below, I plotted the number of degrees awarded per capita for four types of degrees: PhDs, Master’s, Bachelor’s, and Associate degrees. I gathered the degree data from the IPEDS database, and the U.S. population estimates from WorldBank. I’ll discuss each plot in detail below.


PhDs awarded was the most interesting to me, because these are the folks I’m competing for a job with. 20 PhDs per 100k people means that only 0.02% of the population earns a PhD every year, truly a rare feat that only the most dedicated students can accomplish. Yet here’s the stickler: At least in biology, less than 10% of those graduates end up in academic faculty positions, whereas 50% of them share my dream of becoming a university professor. There’s incredibly intense competition for an academic faculty job even with such a small set of qualified candidates!

The dip in PhDs awarded in the early 2000s stands out here, but I can only guess at the underlying cause. What happened in academia in the mid-late 1990s that made fewer people pursue a PhD?


In contrast to the other degree types, Master’s degrees have been on a steady incline for the past 20+ years. Interestingly, this means that the recent surge of young students lining up to get a Bachelor’s degree haven’t been following up to get a Master’s — at least, any more than they would’ve prior to the college degree surge. What’s really crazy here, though, is that after 23 years, we’re producing twice as many Master’s degrees per capita than we used to. That really raises the question of whether the U.S.A. is really in an education crisis that it has been purported to be.


Bears, beets, and Bachelor’s degrees! The numbers are really staggering for this plot. About 0.54% of the U.S. population earns a Bachelor’s degree each year. And that number is still growing rapidly. At this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised if 1% of the U.S. population is earning a Bachelor’s degree per year by 2020.

An interesting facet of this plot is that there’s a dip in Bachelor’s degrees awarded in the mid-late 1990s. Perhaps this could explain the dip in PhDs awarded in the early 2000s: Fewer people were graduating from college in the mid-late 1990s, so there were fewer people to follow up and graduate with a PhD 5-7 years later.


Associate degrees have followed the same trends as the other degrees, even with the lost interest in them in the 1990s. I’d really like to know what caused the general disinterest in college degrees in the 1990s; could it have been related to the Dot-com bubble?

By popular demand, I plotted all of the degree types below (now including Professional degrees) so all degree types can be compared in a single chart. Here we again see the explosive growth in popularity of Master’s degrees, surpassing the growth of even Bachelor’s degrees.


Randy is a PhD candidate in Michigan State University's Computer Science program. As a member of Dr. Chris Adami's research lab, he studies biologically-inspired artificial intelligence and evolutionary processes.

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  • Dirk Digler

    “That really raises the question of whether the U.S.A. is really in an education crisis that it has been purported to be.”

    Define “education crisis.”

    If anything, the graphs show the education crisis. When everyone has a bachelors, no one stands out, so people continue onto useless masters degrees. What used to be highly-specialized degrees only pursued by people who needed them are now becoming commonplace.

    • Randy Olson

      One of the most common arguments I hear supporting making college more affordable is that “we need more college-educated citizens.” It seems to imply that we’re lacking in college-educated people, perhaps in comparison to previous decades or other countries.

    • phlypp

      Today’s job requirements demand higher education. Yes, the master’s degree is replacing the bachelor’s degree which replaced the high school diploma but this transition is because of the greater educational needs of the modern world.

      • Dirk Digler

        I don’t buy this. What specific jobs require more education now than they did 20 years ago? Why can’t developments in the industry be incorporated into the bachelor curriculum?

        MBAs are the best example of this education arms race. These kids go to business school for four years but can’t get a job after, so they go straight into an MBA program without work experience. Now there are too many MBAs for the few MBA-required jobs.

        Why not advertise MBA preference for your bachelor degree job? You’ll get an overqualified candidate for cheap.

        • Aces

          And if a frog had wings, he wouldn’t bump his ass when he hops. Due to technology, the jobs have changed. Employers want employees who stand out from the pack. Since everyone now has a BS, having a BS is not enough.

          Those who are getting an MBA are doing it on free will. It is up to the person to do their due diligence on their career path.

    • Bob

      Imagine a country where all the school systems began to require Master’s degrees to get higher pay as a teacher. Then imagine what you as a teacher might do.

      • Justin

        Not sure if this is sarcasm or not — but most of my teachers throughout grade school had masters degrees. A handful were PhDs — and this was in my 7th grade science class.

        • Dirk Digler

          Way to prove the point.

        • Aces

          Anecdotal responses hold very little value.

  • Tyler

    Randall, my first suggestion to you is to stop using graphs with truncated scales. It exaggerates differences that may not really be the dramatic. My second suggestion is to really understand your data. You’re saying that a dip of 1 PhD per 100,000 stands out, which in the scope of things, doesn’t really seem that important since it’s a local minimum in a larger trend (and probably isn’t significant). Also, you might consider correlating it with prior awarded degrees. You’ll probably find a lag.

    • Randy Olson

      Here’s the PhD chart with the y axis to 0:

      To my eye: Same trends, but not as dramatic-looking. The value of not truncating the y-axis seems dubious to me, primarily because there’s so much wasted graph space now. Per Tufte’s guidelines (you can tell what I’ve been reading lately), you want to maximize the amount of data on the plot and minimize empty space. The wasted space is only slightly apparent with the PhD plot, but if I scaled the Bachelor’s degree y-axis down to 0, most of the graph would be white space with a small line.

      I understand the desire to not truncate the y-axis though, to make the plots more comparable. In that sense, I think a different type of plot would be required altogether to compare trends in degrees over time by the different degree types. For example, perhaps a % change graph (all degree types on the same graph) with 1987 as the baseline would make for easier comparison.

      • Chris

        Non-truncated axes aren’t just about making plots more comparable, they’re about placing the data in proper context. In your first graph above, it visually appears as though there’s been a doubling in the number of PhDs. (the spike is twice as high as the 1995 plateau). If you showed the complete axis, it would be clear that it was actually a more modest ~20% increase.

        You claim that the full chart isn’t as dramatic looking, and I say, Yes! That’s the point!

  • Donald Duck

    “What happened in academia in the mid-late 1990s that made fewer people pursue a PhD?”

    Just overlay with GDP growth data (and shift by ~ 4 years).

    When economy is great, and there are lots of jobs, why should I go get a Phd? just get a job. If jobs are scarce, stay in school, try to get the next degree and hope it helps you to compete to get a job.

  • chamm

    that dip in the 90s coincides with the flower child generation I think, kids born and raised in the 70s, which may explain that difference.

  • Jason

    You misspelled “beets”. :)

    • Randy Olson

      *fix* I don’t know what you’re talking about! :-D

  • ba

    “What happened in academia in the mid-late 1990s that made fewer people pursue a PhD?”

    Probably a delayed reaction to the influx of academics coming from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

  • Chris

    Depending on what question you’re trying to answer, wouldn’t it make more sense to look at the proportion of people that could reasonably be getting degrees? Does it make sense to include children or senior citizens in that 100,000 population if there’s really no possibility they’d be awarded a degree? The distribution of people across ages ebbs and flows. I wonder what this would look like if for the 100,000 people, you only included those age 18-35 (the span in which most people receive degrees ranging from associates to PhDs).

    • Becky

      I had the same thought. Some of these trends reflect the increasing amount of individuals “at risk” of a higher degree due to rising high school graduation rates. Additionally, it might be that there was an uptick in degrees conferred to international students that helps to drive the slope up. Unfortunately, the pool “at risk” is hard to determine on an annual basis.

      Looking at Census data (via IPUMS-USA) for all individuals 18+ who have a HS diploma or GED but do not have a bachelor’s degree in conjunction with “degrees conferred to U.S. residents” for 1999-2000 and 2009-2010 (here:, I found:
      * The total population of individuals 18+ grew by 12.4% between 2000-10 while the population of individuals “at risk” of a bachelor’s grew by 16.6%
      * Bachelor’s conferred among the population at risk in 2000 were 994 per 100,000. This rate rose to 1,140 in 2010.

  • Kelcey

    The so called college degree crisis is driven by our drop in international OECD educational attainment rankings. The fact is that the percent of US adults (25-64) with an AA or higher has remained essentially flat for decades. The ‘problem’ is that suddenly other countries increased and thus our ranking dropped so we’re kind of in the middle of the OECD pack. (And fyi, not all AA’s ‘count’ in OECD rankings–they have to be Associate of Science degrees).

  • c0dejunkie

    The huge popularity of the Master’s degree is probably at least partially due to the large influx of international students studying engineering from countries such as China and India.

    Most international students upon completion of a Master’s degree are permitted the opportunity to work in the US at salaries that are very much higher than for a comparable job in their native homeland.

    • Randy Olson

      This theory is at least partially supported by the data:

      312k foreign students in 1980 vs. 765k foreign students in 2011. Quite an increase. Would love to see data on what degrees these foreign students are studying for.

  • Lisa

    Kinda a derpy thing but most of the Organists that my mother works with have PHDs. It seems rather silly to me to have a doctorate in playing the pipe organ but to each own.

    I personally think half of the stuff we learn in Highschool should be taught in Middleschool and most of the first 2 years of college should be in Highschool. I feel that we waste time in the first 2 years of college with those mandatory courses which in actuality should have already been completed in highschool level.

    For example, Algebra, Geometry, Algebra II should be middleschool content. Precalc, Calc, Statistics, in Highschool.

    • Evan

      I agree, but to meet that level of expectation, I think you have to fund Pre-K education to get the groundwork laid early. Also, Summer vacations could be split up and distributed through the curriculum to reduce burnout without letting valuable knowledge slip away.

  • SirPodrickPayne

    Per capita is a weird way to look at it. What does 1% of US population every year gets a bachelor’s degree even mean? You should do a comparison of people in a college-going demographic and people who end up pursuing a bachelor’s degree to get a clearer (and perhaps more meaningful picture). Perhaps, a way to look at it is to see how many people in a particular year ended up going to college out of the total population that came out of high-school. Now sure, some people wait a few years (but you could probably account for that too.) And I agree with the truncated scales!

  • JBL

    I’m willing to bet the change in degrees granted is directly proportional to the change in the level of the Federal govt’s directly financing or subsidizing loans for college tuition. The Feds up the amount available and more people get degrees. The Feds paying/subsidizing is what causes higher tuition prices and also what cheapens getting the degree.

    • Randy Olson

      Public funding for universities has actually been going down in the past decade. For example, take a look at this plot:

      State funding has either gone down or stagnated, not keeping up with the increasing student enrollment. Lax student loan requirements have fueled this college degree bubble.

  • JustAThought

    Don’t forget, universities are businesses – entry standards are lower or have dropped in “less credible” or new schools (I’m not saying this is the case across the board). Also, as a society, we have made Skilled Trades a “bad” term. In effect, we have diluted the talent pool, resulting in less capable graduates with fewer employment options. Meanwhile, our country is facing a drought of skilled tradesmen/women to the point where it will be difficult to maintain (let alone grow) any domestic manufacturing based industry.

    • Randy Olson

      This is something I try to subtly mention in all of my education-related posts. The US doesn’t need all of these non-STEM college degrees; we definitely need more skilled tradespeople.

  • unknown

    “There’s a ton of competition for academic jobs nowadays, much more so than 20-30 years ago. That made me wonder at lunch yesterday: just how much more competition is there?”

    Shouldn’t it be scaled by number of academic positions then?

    • Randy Olson

      Sure — but someone else has done that already (and used pure # of degrees/positions). I wish I could find that plot.

  • Nunuya

    What really needs to be said isn’t oh more people are getting degrees. Who cares if someone gets a degree in English or Multidisciplinary Studies? Those degrees don’t matter.

    What’s worrying is that US is not producing enough engineers and jobs that require critical thinking…

  • elZorro

    4 out of 5 of these graphs are misleading, because the y-axis does not start at 0, so they artificially inflate the effects they’re trying to display.

    • Randy Olson

      I disagree. The other 4 graphs show the numbers on the y-axis.

      • Becky

        Unfortunately, while the numbers might be there our visual senses still skew the interpretation and make it seem much more dramatic than it actually is. (cf. work by Stephen Few or some of Cole Nussbaumer’s posts on her blog Storytelling w/Data)

  • Adam

    Can you add an individual graph for the professional degrees on the per capita basis just like you did for the other degrees?

    • Randy Olson

      Sure, you can view it below.

  • Dr.D

    “What happened in academia in the mid-late 1990s that made fewer people pursue a PhD?”

    I was in grad school from 1991-1998, during which time I saw a lot of my classmates leave. You know where they went? Tech startups. Amazon. Almost any place that had a .com domain rather than a .edu domain. Even though I’m a humanist I think the majority of my classmates who left during that period when into jobs related to the tech boom (including several as instructional technologists). Others went into real estate, the mortgage industry, you name it.

    20 years ago we knew the academic job market was bad and would likely get worse. Of my Ph.D. cohort of ~50 people only three finished, and I’m the only one who ended up in a TT position (ours was a top ten program as well). There were just too many other opportunities out there in the 1990s, and the odds against landing a TT position were never very good.

  • Pingback: Proliferation of master’s degrees produces wasteful ‘credential inflation’ | Cost of College()

  • sth_txs

    There are simply too many Phd’s in a variety of fields. I was asked to join one time, but I did not see the value for the years and more quasi poverty required.

    This is from 2006, but I doubt little has changed:

  • betweenthelines

    This reflects the “business” transition of higher ed… all are money makers except PhD programs.

    The overall expansion has been a wonderful offset to the sluggish economy, providing another means to pull future economic activity forward through debt and keep individuals on task/not unemployed. What happens when graduates are oversupplied, salaries declines and debt repayments eat up personal earnings…

About this blog

The data visualizations on this blog are the result of my “data tinkering” hobby, where I tackle a new data analysis problem every week. If I find something interesting, I report my findings here to share with the world.

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