WASHINGTON — The number of Americans graduating from college has surged in recent years, sending the share with a college degree to a new high, federal data shows.
The surge follows more than two decades of slow growth in college completion, which caused the United States to fall behind other countries and led politicians from both parties, including President Barack Obama, to raise alarms.
Last year, 33.5 percent of Americans ages 25 to 29 had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 24.7 percent in 1995, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In 1975, the share was 21.9 percent. The number of two-year college degrees, master’s degrees and doctorates has also risen recently.
The increases appear to be driven both by a sharp rise in college enrollment and by an improvement among colleges in graduating students.
The trends could bring good news in future years, economists say, as more Americans become qualified for higher-paying jobs as the economy recovers.
The attainment of bachelor’s degrees has risen much faster for young women in the last decade than for young men. It has also risen among young whites, blacks and Hispanics.
The share of people with a college degree also varies tremendously by state, with 48.1 percent of people ages 25 to 34 in Massachusetts holding a bachelor’s degree, but just 20.4 percent in Nevada.
Despite the recent improvement, higher education experts emphasized that college completion rates were still distressingly low, with only about half of first-time college freshmen who enrolled in 2006 having graduated by 2012, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
The increase in college degrees is likely to fuel a debate about the wisdom of having so many people flock to college, given high debt levels and stories of unemployed graduates who are stuck on their parents’ couches.
Many economists point out that college graduates have fared much better than their less-educated peers and argue that rising educational levels will help the economy in the long run. Since the recession began in December 2007, the number of Americans with bachelor’s degrees who have jobs has risen by 9 percent, while employment has fallen for everyone else.
The unemployment rate for graduates of four-year colleges between the ages of 25 and 34 was 3.3 percent in March. For high school graduates in the same age group who had not attended college, it was 11.8 percent.