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Animated map: Watch 70 years of educational progress in 30 seconds

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

People often talk about how the US has fallen behind other nations in the proportion of young people with a college degree. That's true, but it can make it easy to forget how much more educated the US has become in just a few generations.

In 1940, no more than 7 percent of the adults in any state had at least a bachelor's degree. It took until 1960 to even hit 10 percent. Fifty years later, the best-educated states are nearing 40 percent. This GIF from Reddit user MetricMaps shows the progress:

Bachelors_degree_gifThe GIF shows a few interesting trends. One is that levels of higher education, state by state, vary more now than they did in the past. West Virginia has a smaller proportion of college graduates now than Massachusetts did in 1980.

The other is that while the post-World War II GI Bill has almost mythical status for expanding access to higher education in the US, its short-term effects weren't transformative. About 3.8 million veterans, out of the 15 million who returned from World War II, used the benefits to go to college or graduate school; that's about 3 percent of the adult population in 1950.

The generation that really made a difference was those veterans' children — the baby boomers. The number of public colleges in the US doubled between 1960 and 1980, and college enrollment nationally more than tripled. And graduation rates followed. Among the Baby Boom generation, Americans are still the best-educated people in the world. It's younger Americans who have fallen behind.