Thirty percent of American adults had at least a four-year degree last year, the highest level ever, with Hispanics making especially sharp gains, according to Census figures released Thursday.
But the optimism sparked by the new figures, coupled with new information reflecting higher earnings and lower unemployment rates for people with at least a four-year degree, is faltering in Texas.
The latest figures for Texas show 25.9 percent of adults with a bachelor's degree or higher in 2010, while almost 20 percent lacked a high school diploma. That compares with 12 percent of adults nationally who didn't graduate from high school.
"My sense is, Texas is really at a crossroads," said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University who devotes a chapter to education in his new book, Lone Star Tarnished: A Critical Look at Texas Politics and Public Policy. "I think it makes the future look fairly bleak."
He blames inadequate funding, at least in part, for the state's lackluster educational statistics.
"Politicians say you can't improve schools by throwing money at them," he said. "True enough. But if your schools are performing sadly according to national standards, and you are underfunding them, chances are you won't have a competitive workforce in the future."
Several reports released Thursday offered an updated look at the value of education -- people with a bachelor's degree earned an average of almost $5,500 a month, while those who didn't complete high school earned only about $2,400 a month.
Other recent findings suggest that education has broader implications, too, as those who lack a college degree are less likely to marry.
Historically below average
Lloyd Potter, director of the Texas State Data Center, said updated numbers for Texas, when they are released, will show whether the state is making progress.
"Historically, we've been below average in terms of college attainment, and well below average in high school attainment," he said. "That has a lot of implications for what your labor force looks like. What kind of jobs are available, and do you have the people to fill them?"
Texas traditionally has drawn people from out-of-state for high-skill jobs, he said.
"But in the long run, that's not a sustainable strategy. At some point, employers will find it more cost-effective to locate somewhere that they don't have to relocate people."
Nationally, the Census Bureau reported more Hispanics are earning a college degree. The percentage of Hispanics with at least a bachelor's degree reached 14.1 percent in 2011, up from 11.1 percent in 2001.
If that holds true in Texas, where Hispanics accounted for two-thirds of population growth over the past decade, Potter said, "there may be some hope. That's our future."
Beyond the economy
But the impact may reach beyond the economy.
Sharon Sassler, a researcher at Cornell University, said it is likely to also mean more births outside marriage, as well as lower marriage rates overall.
Marriage rates have dropped among all racial and ethnic groups. But the Population Reference Bureau reports that over the past decade, the proportion of married young adults dropped 10 percentage points, to 44 percent, for those with a high school education or less. About 52 percent of people with at least a bachelor's degree are married, a drop of 4 percent.
The differences are even more stark for women who become mothers: 92 percent of college-educated women are married when they give birth, compared with 43 percent of women with a high school diploma or less.
Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg said the shift isn't about a change in moral values.
"It's a change in the economy," he said. "Marriage seems to make less sense."
That could make education an even bigger factor in the future, he said.
"We are moving into a world where the greater divide is a class divide."
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