Number of College Graduates Per Year
How many college graduates are there every year in the United States? We break down the numbers for you in several different categories, including the type of degree, gender, and ethnicity.
- During the 2015-2016 academic year, 1,920,718 Americans graduated with a bachelor’s degree.
- That same year, 785,595 Americans earned their master’s degree.
- On average, around 58 percent of all students finishing college education at the collegiate level during the 2015-2016 academic year (associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, doctor’s) were female.
- Private colleges awarded 1,349,609 degrees (of all types) during the 2015-2016 academic year.
On average, it is taking college students nearly six years to graduate with a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college.
During the 2015-2016 academic year, the total number of students who received higher education degrees in the United States was 3,892,494. Of those, 2,274,030 (or 58 percent) were women. Women made up the majority of degree recipients in every degree type (associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctor’s) for the 2015-2016 academic year.
Degrees awarded are predicted to rise almost every year for the next several years. It is estimated that for the 2019-2020 academic year, there will be a total of 3,898,000 college graduates in the United States, an increase of nearly six million students from the 2015-2016 academic year.
Degrees awarded across all groups have risen since 2003. Between 2003 and 2013, the number of degrees conferred grew by 39 percent or 1,077,000 additional degrees over the ten-year period.
Looking at all graduates across all degree types for the 2015-2016 academic year, 59 percent were white,11 percent were black,13 percent were Hispanic, 7 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander, roughly half of one percent were American Indian/Alaskan Natives, and 3 percent were of two or more races. The remaining 7 percent were non-resident aliens (students from other countries here on student or other visas).
Total Degrees as Percent of Ethnicity (2015-2016)
We take an in-depth look at each specific degree type below, including gender and ethnicity, and compare private college degree award data to that of public colleges to see if there’s any appreciable difference between the two.
Associate’s (Two-year) Degrees
An associate’s degree is a two-year degree (typically) and is a level below a bachelor’s degree. Some businesses only require employees to have an associate’s degree, not a bachelor’s or other higher degree.
There were 1,008,314 students who received associate’s degrees during the 2015-2016 academic year. That was nearly 26 percent of all degrees conferred that year.
Of those awarded associate’s degrees, 616,162, (61 percent) were women.
Between the 2005-2006 academic year and the 2015-2016 academic year, the number of associate’s degrees awarded rose by 40 percent, from 713,066 in 2006 to 1,000,000 in 2016.
Roughly 56 percent of students receiving associate’s degrees in the 2015-2016 academic year were white, followed by nearly 20 percent who identified as Hispanic.
The chart below shows the total number of associate’s degrees awarded by ethnicity for the 2015-2016 academic year.
Bachelor’s (Four-year Degrees)
A bachelor’s degree is a four-year degree (typically, although in some cases it may take five or six years depending on class load and when a student decided on their major) and is a level below a master’s degree.
During the 2015-2016 academic year, 1,920,718 students received bachelor’s degrees. That was 49 percent of all degrees conferred that year.
Of those awarded bachelor’s degrees, 57 percent were women.
Between the 2005-2006 academic year and the 2015-2016 academic year, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded rose by 29 percent, from 1,485,242 in 2006 to 1,920,718 in 2016.
Just over 62 percent of students receiving bachelor’s degrees during the 2015-2016 academic year were white, followed by 12 percent who identified as Hispanic.
The chart below displays the total number of bachelor’s degrees awarded by ethnicity for the 2015-2016 academic year.
Master’s degrees can take 18 months to four years or more to complete, depending on the class load, focus area, and school. These are advanced degrees that are one level below a doctorate.
In order to obtain a master’s degree, you must have a bachelor’s degree, or be working toward both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree at the same time.
For the 2015-2016 academic year, 785,595 master’s degrees were awarded, which was 20 percent of all degrees that year.
Of those receiving master’s degrees, 59 percent were women.
For the ten-year period between the 2005-2006 and 2015-2016 academic years, master’s degrees increased by nearly 31 percent, going from 599,731 awarded in 2006 to 785,595 awarded in 2016.
A little over 55 percent of master’s degree recipients were white, followed by 11 percent of recipients who were black.
The chart below indicates the total number of master’s degrees awarded by ethnicity for the 2015-2016 academic year.
A doctorate is the highest level of degree that can be obtained. Length of time to obtain a doctorate can vary, again depending on the subject studied, school granting the degree, and course load.
During the 2015-2016 academic year, 177,867 doctorates were awarded, or 5 percent of all degrees that year.
Of those receiving doctorate degrees, nearly 53 percent were women.
Between the 2005-2006 and 2015-2016 academic years, doctorate degrees rose by nearly 29 percent, going from 138,056 awarded in 2006 to 177,867 awarded in 2016.
Around 60 percent of those receiving doctorates were white, followed by 11 percent who were Asian/Pacific Islander.
The chart below displays the total number of doctorates awarded by ethnicity for the 2015-2016 academic year.
Private vs Public Colleges
Do private schools churn out a higher percentage of college graduates each year than public colleges? There are several assumptions out there that private colleges graduate higher percentages of students each year than their public counterparts.
We’ve examined each degree type below to find out if the numbers reflect the assumptions.
For the 2015-2016 academic year, public colleges awarded a total of 2,542,885 degrees or about 65 percent of all degrees for the year.
Private colleges awarded 1,349,609 degrees that year or about 35 percent of all degrees for that year.
The chart below splits out the degrees awarded for the 2015-2016 academic year at public versus private colleges for postsecondary education.
We would expect to see those numbers reflect enrollment rates fairly closely if the difference is based on the percent of total enrollment. We looked back to the 2011-2012 enrollment numbers, assuming it took students about four years to complete their degrees.
Total college enrollment for the 2011-2012 academic year was 21,010,590 students, of which 15,116,303 attended public colleges, and 5,894,287 attended private colleges. That means around 28 percent of all students were enrolled in private institutions versus about 72 percent in public colleges.
Those percents are fairly close to those for awarded degrees in 2015-2016. The smaller percentage of private school enrollment and a larger percentage of degrees awarded at private schools may indicate that private colleges are awarding more degrees than their public counterparts.
That discrepancy could also be caused by many contributing factors, such as (typically) larger student populations in public colleges skewing the graduation rates down as a larger portion of students may choose not finish their degrees than those at private colleges, or students taking longer at public schools to finish their degrees than at private colleges.
And the types of students enrolled at each type of school may also be a factor. For example, a single parent at a public college may need to take longer to complete a degree than recent high school graduates with no dependents attending a private college.
According to one study, roughly 40 percent of public college students who enrolled in 2008 graduated a four-year institution in four years. By the six-year mark, 60 percent of students seeking a four-year degree had graduated.
At non-profit private colleges, nearly 53 percent of students enrolled in 2008 who were seeking a four-year degree graduated within four years. At six years, nearly 66 percent of students seeking a four-year degree had graduated.
While it’s unclear what causes the variations in graduation rates between public and private colleges, it doesn’t necessarily seem to mean that one type of school awards more degrees than the other.
- National Center for Education Statistics, Table 318.10
- Politifact Wisconsin, “On Average, a College Degree Takes Six Years, U.S. Sen Ron Johnson Says.”
- National Center for Education Statistics, Table 321.20
- National Center for Education Statistics, Table 322.20
- National Center for Education Statistics, Table 323.20
- National Center for Education Statistics, Table 324.20
- National Center for Education Statistics, “Fast Facts: Degrees Conferred by Sex and Race.”
- National Center for Education Statistics, Table 318.40
- National Center for Education Statistics, Table 303.10
- National Center for Education Statistics, “Graduation Rates for Selected Cohorts 2008-2013; Outcome Measures for Cohort Year 2008; Student Financial Aid Academic Year 2015-2016; and Admissions in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2016.”