NC in Focus: The Sex Gap in Postsecondary Attainment

Nationally, 46% of women aged 25-64 reported having an associate degree or higher in 2017 compared to 39% of men, a gap of seven percentage points. In North Carolina, this gap was even larger: 48% of women had an associate degree or higher compared to 38% of men, a gap of 10 percentage points.

Compared to men, North Carolina women are more likely to report the completion of an associate degree (11.9% vs. 8.3%), bachelor’s (23.3% vs. 20.1%), or master’s (9.8% vs. 6.8%) degree. Men are slightly more likely than women to hold a professional degree (1.8% vs. 1.7%) or a doctorate (1.3% vs. 1.1%).

The female-male gap in postsecondary attainment differs by age, reflecting changing norms and expectations about women and work. At older ages—65 and above—men have higher levels of educational attainment, reflecting the different opportunity structures and expectations of the mid-twentieth century. (Among North Carolinians age 65 and older, 38% of men have an associate or higher compared to 30% of women.)

As women entered the workforce in increasing numbers in the 1960s and 1970s, female educational attainment also increased. The female-male difference in educational attainment emerges among individuals ages 55-64 (born between 1953 and 1962), with 42% of women reporting an associate degree or higher compared to 37% of men. This gap widens in younger generations, driven by steady increases in female educational attainment and relatively small changes in men’s overall attainment.

Among North Carolinians ages 45-54, the female-male attainment gap is 10 percentage points: 47% of women report an associate degree or higher compared to 37% of men. The difference increases to 12 percentage points among 35-44-year-olds, with 52% of women holding an associate degree or higher compared to 40% of men and remains at 12 percentage points among adults aged 25-34 (51% vs. 39%).

Next up: a look at how wages vary with educational attainment.

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Rising Attainment Among North Carolina’s Degree-Earners

Forty-three percent of North Carolina’s adults aged 25-64 held some type of postsecondary degree in 2017—just over 2.3 million residents in the state. This share has risen five percentage points since 2010, and ten since 2000. In total, North Carolina gained 932K working-age adults with an Associate degree or higher from 2000 to 2017, and among these adults, the level of degree attainment continues to rise.

In 2000, the majority of NC adults aged 25-64 with a postsecondary degree held a Bachelor’s (53%). This share dropped three percentage points as of 2017 to just half of all degree holders. An additional one-fourth of degree-holders had an Associate in 2000. This share dropped one percentage point by 2017 to 24%.

The four percentage point (pp) loss among these two groups is accounted for by growth in Master’s (+3pp) and Doctoral degree holders (+1pp) over the same period. In 2000, 16% of degree-holders in North Carolina had a Master’s and 2% held a Doctorate, growing to 19% and 3% in 2017, respectively.

The number of NC adults aged 25-64 with a Master’s degree grew by over 100% – the only group to do so – from 222K in 2000 to 446K in 2017. This growth rate is followed closely by growth in the number of working-age adults with a doctoral degree (93%), from 33.3K in 2000 to 64.2K in 2017. Bachelor’s degree-holders, by comparison, grew the slowest at 59%, or 431K, since 2000. The difference in growth rates is partly due to the large number of Bachelor’s degree-holders compared to Master’s and doctoral degree-holders.

This growth in advanced degrees follows closely with the growth in occupations by degree level. According to data from North Carolina’s Commerce Department, jobs requiring a Master’s degree or higher are projected to have the fastest growth through 2026—their projected growth is 4.1 percentage points faster than the average growth for all jobs in NC. While occupations requiring an advanced degree still comprise a smaller overall share of the total job market – contributing to some of this fast growth – demands for the labor market are also experiencing real shifts. According to a nationwide survey conducted by CareerBuilder, “60% of employers who were satisfied with hiring high school graduates in the past claimed their work requires the skills held by those who completed higher education”.

With that said, North Carolina residents considering a postsecondary degree should recognize that job growth is projected to exceed the state average for any occupation requiring at least an Associate degree. An advanced degree may not be suitable for everyone, but some postsecondary attainment is increasingly recommended. Occupations requiring a high school degree alone have projected growth 1.5 percentage points slower than the average for all jobs. Growth will be even slower for those requiring some college, no degree at 3 percentage points less than the average for all jobs.

On the other hand, individuals can expect much faster-than-average growth in the skilled-service sector. These occupations typically require an Associate or a nondegree work credential, and will exceed the average for all jobs by 3.3 percentage points and 1.9 percentage points, respectively.

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In-migration plays large role in NC’s rising educational attainment

When we focus on educational attainment, we generally focus on prime working-age adults, defined here as adults between the ages of 25 and 64. There were 5.4 million prime working-age adults in North Carolina in 2017. Of these individuals, 2.3 million or 43.2% held a postsecondary degree:

  • 545,000 or 10% had an associate degree
  • 2 million or 22% had a bachelor’s degree
  • 446,400 or 8% had a master’s degree
  • 92,900 or 2% had a professional degree, such as a JD, MBA, or MD
  • 64,200 or 1% had a doctoral degree

Among the more than three million North Carolina prime working-age adults without a postsecondary degree, the largest number (1.3 million) had a high school diploma or GED, equivalent to 24% of NC adults aged 25-64. Another 1.2 million reported having some college, no degree, followed by 570,500 with less than a high school diploma, representing 22% and 11% of prime working-age adults, respectively.

How have these populations changed since 1990? The number of adults aged 25-64 living in North Carolina grew by 1.9 million between 1990 and 2017. Over this period, the number of adults without a high school diploma declined by 246,000. This decline reflects generational replacement as, over time, older, less educated workers are replaced by younger workers with higher levels of educational attainment.

At all other levels of attainment, the number of NC workers increased. Compared to 1990, in 2017 there were:

  • 705,600 more adults aged 25-64 with a bachelor’s degree, the largest numeric increase of any attainment group.
  • 537,400 more adults with some college, no degree. Some of these adults may have nondegree credentials that are not well-captured by the American Community Survey data used here. Many, however, are partway home students who have some college credit (and may have college debt), without a degree or credential to confer workplace benefits.
  • 312,900 more adults with a master’s degree.
  • 269,500 more adults with an associate degree.
  • 245,300 more adults with a high school diploma or equivalent (e.g., GED).
  • 50,700 more adults with a professional degree.
  • 38,600 more adults with a doctoral degree.

Apart from adults with a high school diploma or less than a high school diploma, all attainment groups grew faster than the overall population growth rate of 56%. The number of associate degree holders increased 98% and the number of postsecondary degree holders at all other levels more than doubled over this period. As a result, the share of North Carolina adults with a postsecondary degree increased 16 percentage points, rising from 27.2% in 1990 to 43.2% in 2017.

Much of the state’s growth between 1990 and 2017 was fueled by net in-migration, and this in-migration also fueled the steady increase in the number of NC adults with a postsecondary degree. Since 1990, the state population of prime working-age adults with a postsecondary degree increased by 1.4 million—974,600 or 70% of these new residents with a postsecondary degree were born outside of North Carolina. In 2017, 36% of NC-born adults aged 25-64 had an associate degree or higher compared to 50% of adults born outside of NC. (Note: sum of proportions in chart differs due to rounding).

North Carolina-born adults and adults born elsewhere were equally likely to report having less than a high school diploma. Compared to individuals born in another state or country, North Carolina-born adults aged 25-64 were more likely to have a high school diploma or equivalent; some college, no degree; or an associate degree. Individuals born in another state or country were more likely than their NC-born peers to hold bachelor’s, master’s, professional, or doctoral degrees.

Next up: an examination of trends in the type of postsecondary degree held from 2000-2017.

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What is “postsecondary attainment”?

What is “postsecondary attainment”?

This post was co-authored with the John M. Belk Endowment.

School administrators, policy analysts, and government officials have begun using the term “postsecondary attainment” when discussing successful educational outcomes. What does this mean?

Postsecondary refers to education or training beyond high school. Attainment means the completion of a postsecondary degree or nondegree credential. Postsecondary attainment is not a one-size-fits-all concept. It includes postsecondary degrees, such as associate or bachelor’s degrees, awarded by a college or university, as well as nondegree credentials. There are three main categories of nondegree credentials:

  • Educational institutions also award postsecondary educational certificates and diplomas to students who complete a specific program of study. In general, they take less time to complete than a degree and are used to learn new skills or update existing skills in a field.Academic credits earned through a certificate or diploma can typically be applied towards a future degree.

  • Industry certifications are a signal to employers that an individual is proficient in a particular job or skill. They are usually awarded by a third-party, standard-setting organization after an individual successfully completes an assessment process.

  • Licenses are occupational credentials awarded by a government agency. They grant the license holder the legal authority to do a specific job based on the fulfillment of pre-determined criteria (typically some combination of degree or credential attainment, certifications, exams, apprenticeship programs, or work experience).
    When we talk about postsecondary attainment, we often focus our conversations on the degrees or credentials awarded by colleges and universities. This reflects a lack of high-quality data on nondegree credential attainment outside of the collegiate environment. Because licenses and certifications are granted by third-parties—such as an independent agency or board—and not an educational institution, they are harder to track than the degrees and nondegree credentials awarded by educational institutions.

    Additionally, while educational institutions provide data on nondegree certificates and diplomas, these details are not yet regularly reported in large-scale population surveys, such as the American Community Survey. In most existing surveys, nondegree credential holders without a postsecondary degree are categorized as having attained “some college, no degree.” This category includes credential holders as well as students who left college without completing a course of study. National data on the share of U.S. adults with a postsecondary nondegree credential first became available in 2014; this type of data is not yet regularly available for states or counties.

    Next up: in-migration and its role in North Carolina’s current attainment rate.

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Introducing North Carolina’s Public Postsecondary Pipeline

On February 20, the myFutureNC Commission announced a statewide attainment goal: by 2030, 2 million North Carolinians age 25-44 will hold a postsecondary degree or nondegree credential. This represents a 67% postsecondary attainment rate for this age group in 2030, a seventeen percentage point increase over the current attainment rate for this age group (50% in 2017).

This goal was set because recent trends in educational attainment are insufficient to meet projected demands for an educated workforce. Additionally, educational attainment is a key factor in social mobility and the capacity to earn a family-supporting wage. Across the state, there are large disparities in attainment by sex, by race/ethnicity, and by geography.

How do we move our state towards this new postsecondary attainment goal? Attainment measures the end outcome of a decades-long educational process. We can think of this process as a pipeline, and this pipeline has leaks.

In collaboration with the John M. Belk Endowment, last Thursday Carolina Demography released a report that maps North Carolina’s public postsecondary education pipeline and identifies our biggest opportunities for improvement. We focus on the public education pipeline—meaning outcomes from K-12 (NC Department of Public Instruction), NC Community Colleges, and the University of North Carolina system. These institutions serve the majority of our state’s students and were able to provide comprehensive data necessary to analyze student outcomes. (In future work, we hope to incorporate data on our state’s independent colleges and universities).

Our work identified four main “leaks”:

  • on-time high school graduation
  • immediate enrollment in a postsecondary institution
  • retention, or staying enrolled in that postsecondary institution
  • on-time graduation from postsecondary

For this study, we followed 9th graders in North Carolina through our state’s public education institutions for ten years. Just 16% of the most recent 9th grade cohort graduated from high school on-time and made an on-time transition to an NC community college or UNC system school and received a degree or credential from that institution. Over the next few weeks, we will explore some of the key findings of this report on the blog and highlight additional, related research.

Next up: What is “postsecondary attainment”?

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