The Most Educated States: The U.S. States With the Largest Surge in Associate and Bachelor's Degrees

Featured image for a blog about the states with the largest increase in associate and bachelor’s degrees

Applying to your dream school can be a thrilling experience. However, as college acceptance videos trend on social media platforms like TikTok, it's essential to recognize that a degree can hold immense value beyond the viral hype.1 Higher education and college degrees can serve as valuable assets when searching for employment, considering that a bachelor’s degree is generally required for entry in nearly 169 occupations.2

One study found that one third of Americans that lacked a four-year college degree declined to apply to a job they felt they were qualified for because that job required a bachelor’s degree.3 On top of this, bachelor degree holders have higher median weekly earnings and a lower unemployment rate compared to their peers who only graduated high school, showcasing the value of a college degree.4

In pursuit of shedding light on educational attainment by state and which states are witnessing significant growth, Grand Canyon University, in collaboration with Grand Canyon Education (GCE), has embarked on a mission to identify the states with the highest increases in associates and bachelor's degrees. Keep reading to see which states are handing out well-earned diplomas to their deserving grads.

In this article:

Methodology for Identifying Changes in Educational Attainment by State

To determine the most educated states in the U.S., we looked at the number of adults aged 18 and older, both male and female, holding associate and bachelor's degrees in each state. We then conducted an analysis using data from the United States Census Bureau.5 Our research focused specifically on 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021, ensuring a comprehensive examination of educational attainment by state across the span of five years. By leveraging the reliable and extensive information provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, we obtained accurate insights to find the most educated states in the U.S.

COVID-19 Impact on Pursuing Higher Education

The landscape of education has undergone significant transformation in recent years.6 For instance, COVID-19 has significantly influenced the field of education, prompting teachers to adapt and make necessary changes. In 2020 alone, over 1,300 colleges decided to cancel in-person classes or transition to online learning formats.7 This unprecedented shift to virtual education has had far-reaching implications on the way students learn and pursue their degrees.8

Exploring the Change in the Number of Associate Degrees Across U.S. States

To provide a visual representation of the changes in the number of associate degrees awarded across each U.S. state over time, we ranked states by education level and illustrated it with a dynamic bar chart. This chart shows the fluctuations and trends in associate degree attainment for every U.S. state based on the percentage of its population with associate degrees.

Dynamic Bar Chart - Associate

Wyoming - Largest Increase

Some of our key findings revealed that Wyoming had the largest increase in the population with associate degree holders at 1.66% from 2017 to 2021.5

Alaska - Largest Decrease

We also found that Alaska, overall, had the largest percentage of associate degree decreases in the U.S. at -1.76%.5

Read on to discover the best-educated states and where your state ranks.

Investigating the Fluctuations in Bachelor’s Degrees Across the U.S.

Curious if your state is one of the most educated states in the U.S.? To gain a comprehensive understanding of educational attainment by state, we widened our focus to explore the broader trends and fluctuations in the number of bachelor's degree holders over a span of five years (2017 to 2021).

Our real-time chart encompasses all 50 states (plus Washington, D.C.), allowing you to observe the number of bachelor's degrees earned in each state. This chart not only reveals the overall degree attainment patterns but also sheds light on interesting dynamics within different states.

By analyzing the data, you can identify states where individuals may be more likely to take gap years and return to school later in life. Or perhaps, the states where individuals want to complete their higher education as quickly as possible.

Dynamic Bar Chart - Bachelor's

Vermont – Largest Increase

Vermont had a 3.43% increase in the percentage of its population with a bachelor's degree from 2017 to 2021.5 Vermont has implemented higher education initiatives, such as increasing the budget for Vermont state colleges to drive in-state enrollment, which may have positively impacted bachelor degree attainment.9

North Dakota – Lowest Increase

Our data revealed that North Dakota, had the lowest percentage increase of residents with bachelor’s degrees at just 0.40%.5 This is a small triumph considering they saw a 0.33% decrease between 2017 and 2019.5

Education Across America: Examining the Change in Associate and Bachelor's Degrees Over Time

Infographic displaying the change in associate and bachelor’s degrees over time

To determine the best-educated states, we ranked states by education level according to their associate and bachelor’s degree attainment by tracking the percentage change from 2017 to 2021.

On the whole, bachelor's degree attainment in the U.S. experienced a steady upward trajectory from 2017 to 2021, with a notable exception from 2019 to 2020, when a slight decrease of 0.10% was observed.5 This may be due to the impacts of the pandemic and remote learning, which left many high schoolers on their own and jaded by education institutions.10

We also found that the percentage of the U.S. population with associate degrees remained consistent until 2021 when it saw a drop of about 0.37%.5 This trend may be influenced by the decision of certain students to enter the workforce directly out of high school without pursuing a degree.11

From 2017 to 2021, there was a decrease of approximately 0.28% in the number of individuals earning associate degrees, contrasting with a notable increase of around 1.61% in the attainment of bachelor's degrees.5 Median earnings of full-time workers with associate and bachelor’s degrees were 24% and 61% higher, respectively, than that of their peers with only a high school diploma.12

The 5 U.S. States With the Greatest Increase in Associate Degrees for Males and Females

Infographic displaying the top 5 U.S. states with the largest increase in associate degrees for males and females

Delaware is outpacing other states in its pursuit of associate degrees.5 In Delaware, there was a 1.53% increase in the percentage of males holding associate degrees, rising from 10.07% to 11.60% over five years.5 In contrast, there was a 0.32% increase in the percentage of females holding associate degrees across that same five-year span.5

The state of Delaware has implemented the Student Excellence Equals Degree (SEED) Scholarship program, enabling students to pursue their degrees and graduate debt-free, which may be one reason why Delaware is seeing an increase.13

Similarly, in Wyoming, there was an upward shift in the percentage of males with associate degrees, climbing from 12.49% to 13.48% over the same five-year period, indicating a 1.00% increase.5 Moreover, in Wyoming, there was also a significant increase in the percentage of females holding associate degrees, surging from 15.88% to 18.25%, reflecting a 2.37% growth over the five years.5

Wyoming offers the Kickstart Wyoming's Tomorrow Scholarship, specifically targeted toward individuals over 24 years of age, which may be encouraging to students in Wyoming to go back to school to complete their associate degrees.14

In North Dakota, a similar trend was observed, with the percentage of females with associate degrees rising from 18.55% to 20.25%, indicating a 1.70% increase.5 The Women's Opportunity Scholarship Fund in North Dakota offers financial support to low-income women who aspire to enter or are currently enrolled in a college or trade school, opening up more opportunities for women to pursue higher education.15

The 5 U.S. States With the Greatest Increase in Bachelor's Degrees for Males and Females

Infographic displaying the top 5 U.S. states with the largest increase in bachelor’s degrees for males and females

While the number of women attaining bachelor's degrees has consistently outpaced men since 1990, we sought to identify the states with the most significant increases for both males and females in bachelor's degree attainment.16

In Vermont, we observed a 4.93% increase in male bachelor's degree attainment, rising from 18.86% in 2017 to 23.79% in 2021.5 Vermont also saw a 2.01% increase in female bachelor’s degree attainment during that same period.5 This increase may be due to the state of Vermont being committed to providing free associate degree programs to all high school students with clear pathways to facilitate the completion of their bachelor's degrees.17

In New Hampshire, the percentage of males earning their bachelor's degrees rose from 20.66% in 2017 to 23.19% in 2021, representing a 2.54% increase over the five-year period.5

Interestingly, Alaska experienced a notable 3.94% increase in women earning their bachelor's degrees, with the percentage rising from 18.91% in 2017 to 22.85% in 2021.5 Alaska has one of the highest college gender gaps in the nation, with women earning bachelor's degrees at a rate almost three times higher than men.18 This disparity may be attributed to factors such as men engaging in labor-intensive jobs like fishing, mining, trapping and fur farming.19

Females in Delaware are prioritizing earning their bachelor’s degree, as there was a 2.91% increase in female bachelor's degree attainment, with the percentage rising from 17.04% in 2017 to 19.94% in 2021.5 A growing number of women in Delaware are in managerial or professional roles, which often require a four-year degree.20

Mississippi saw a 2.89% increase in females completing their bachelor's degrees, while Kentucky witnessed a growth of 2.51% from 2017 to 2021, both standing out as some of the best-educated states across the country.5 The Mississippi Education Achievement Council is looking to increase the state’s attainment rate in post-secondary education by creating pathways in high-wage careers, especially for women.21 In Kentucky, roughly 40% of business owners are women, which may contribute to females earning their bachelor’s degrees and expanding their business knowledge.22

Closing Thoughts on the Best Educated States for Undergraduate Degrees

Ready to pursue a bachelor’s degree? At GCU, we offer a range of bachelor’s degrees in nursing, technology and more.

If you already have an associate's degree and are seeking to transfer your credits, GCU simplifies the transfer process with our transfer degree search tool and dedicated transfer specialists. We understand the importance of a seamless transition and are committed to assisting you every step of the way.

We also offer an extensive range of degree programs in various fields such as engineering, nursing, education, communications and more. This diverse selection ensures that you have the opportunity to find and pursue your academic aspirations at GCU. Whether you are looking to build upon your associate degree or pursue a new area of study, we have the resources and programs to help support your educational journey.


Retrieved from:

1 Yu, Yi-Jin (2023, February 22). High School Senior’s Reaction to College Acceptance Goes Viral: ‘An Amazing Feeling’. GMA. Retrieved on July 10, 2023.

Torpey, Elka (2020, October). Education Level and Projected Openings, 2019-29. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved on Oct. 16, 2023.

Pew Research Center (2016, October 6). 5. The Value of a College Education. Retrieved on July 10, 2023.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2022, May). Education Pays, 2021. Career Outlook. Retrieved on Oct. 16, 2023.

5 United States Census Bureau (n.d.). Educational Attainment. Retrieved on July 10, 2023.

Eser, Sila (2023, Oct. 9). Designing EdTech Solutions for Generation Alpha: Importance of Co-design. Monsterlab. Retrieved on Nov. 29, 2023.

Smalley, Andrew (2021, March 22). Higher Education Responses to Coronavirus (COVID-19) National Conference of State Legislatures. Retrieved on Oct. 16, 2023.

Bruner, Raisa (2020, September 19). ‘There’s a Growing Sense of Fear.’ Students Adapt to Life at College Amid COVID-19 Risks. Time. Retrieved on July 10, 2023.

State of Vermont (2019, July 17). Governor Phil Scott Details Higher Education Initiatives to Support Vermont College, Universities, and Students. State of Vermont. Retrieved on July 10, 2023.

10 Binkley, Collin (2023, March 10). Why More Americans Are Skipping College. PBS News Hour. Retrieved on July 10, 2023.

11 Knox, Liam (2023, March 16). After a Decade of Growth, Degree Earners Decline. IHE. Retrieved on July 10, 2023.

12 Ma, Jennifer, Pender, Matea, and Welch, Meredith (n.d.). Education Pays 2019. CollegeBoard. Retrieved on July 10, 2023.

13 DelawareToday (2022, July 15). A University of Delaware Degree — For Free. Retrieved on July 10, 2023.

14 Greco, Aiden (2023, May 1). New Scholarship Program Geared Toward Those Age 24 and Older. Wyoming News Now. Retrieved on July 10, 2023.

15 CAWS North Dakota (n.d.). Women’s Opportunity Scholarship Fund. CAWS North Dakota. Retrieved on July 10, 2023.

16 National Center for Education Statistics (n.d.). Bachelor’s Degrees Conferred by Postsecondary Institutions, by Race/Ethnicity and Sex of Student: Selected Years 1976-77, Through 2019-20. Retrieved on July 10, 2023.

17 Borden, Elissa (2022, April 26). New Program Offers Free Associate Degree to Vt. High School Students. WCAX. Retrieved on July 10, 2023.

18 Kleinfeld, J., & Andrews, J. J. (2006). The Gender Gap in Higher Education in Alaska. JSTOR. Retrieved on July 10, 2023.

19 American Historical Association (n.d.). How Do Alaskans Make a Living? Retrieved on July 10, 2023.

20 Institute for Women’s Policy Research (2018, March). Status of Women in the States. Status of Women Data. Retrieved on July 10, 2023.

21 Childress, C., Ward, J. D., & Pisacreta, E. D. (2023, January 17). Strengthening Mississippi’s Economic Future Through Postsecondary Investment. Ithaka S+R. Retrieved on July 10, 2023.

22 Thomas, Allen (2023, March 21). Op-Ed: Women Entrepreneurship is on the Rise in the Southeast. The Lane Report. Retrieved on July 10, 2023.


Approved by Executive Director of Office of Communications and Public Relations on Oct. 26, 2023, and the Assistant Vice President of GCU Marketing on Oct. 19, 2023.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.