A growing need, an ongoing commitment and a sharper focus on boosting postsecondary attainment

In 2009, Lumina Foundation released its first Stronger Nation report on our progress as a nation in meeting Goal 2025 — that by 2025, 60 percent of Americans hold degrees, certificates or other high-quality credentials.

Much has changed in America since 2009, but Lumina’s commitment to Goal 2025 has not. Indeed, all available evidence points to the fact that increasing the rate of postsecondary attainment in the U.S. is more important today than ever. Postsecondary learning is the key to meeting the nation’s growing need for talent. Lumina’s commitment to Goal 2025 is based on the fact that opportunity in America — opportunity to reach the middle class, have a good job and career, and contribute to one’s community — depends on success in postsecondary education. Our nation will thrive only to the extent that we provide opportunities for postsecondary success to the millions of Americans who need them.

The bottom line

The good news is that attainment is increasing in the U.S. The degree-attainment rate — the proportion of the U.S. population between the ages of 25 and 64 who hold a two- or four-year college degree — reached 40.4 percent in 2014, the most recent year for which data are available. In 2013 the degree-attainment rate was 40.0 percent, and in 2008 — the first year reported in Stronger Nation — was only 37.9 percent. This is real progress; the increase in the attainment rate since 2008 represents more than 4.2 million additional Americans with college degrees.

The degree-attainment rate has increased even faster among those between the ages of 25 and 34. In 2014, their attainment rate was 42.3 percent. The previous year, that rate was 41.6 percent, and in 2008, it was 37.8 percent — below that of the overall adult population. If this rate of increase can be sustained, it bodes well for future increases in the overall rate of attainment. However, this rate of increase is still not enough to get the nation to Goal 2025.

Of course, it is not just degrees that count toward the goal; all high-quality postsecondary credentials are included. Lumina Foundation has made this point consistently since the first Stronger Nation report was issued. Until now, however, we have lacked data on the number of Americans who hold high-quality postsecondary certificates, one of the other credentials that count toward Goal 2025. This year, for the first time ever, we have reliable national data showing that 4.9 percent of Americans hold a high-quality certificate as their highest credential.

With the inclusion of these high-quality certificates, we can report that the nation’s overall postsecondary attainment rate is 45.3 percent.

According to Lumina’s projection model, about 35.7 million Americans will earn postsecondary credentials that count toward Goal 2025 if current rates of degree and certificate production continue. To reach 60 percent by 2025, 10.9 million more Americans — now between the ages of 15 and 54 — must be added to that total.

Levels of education<% if (!name) { %> (50 States + D.C.)<% } %>, ages 25-64

Less than ninth grade
Ninth to 12th grade, no diploma
High school graduate*
Some college, no degree
Associate degree
Bachelor's degree
Graduate or professional degree

* including equivalency

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2014 American Community Survey

Note: The accompanying pie chart does not account for residents who have earned high-value postsecondary certificates. The percentage on the right – admittedly, an estimate – aims to fill that gap. To calculate this percentage, labor market experts at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce used Survey of Income Program Participation 2008 Wave 12 data (2012) and data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2014.

Quality postsecondary certificates

Lumina’s inclusion of certificates in the Stronger Nation report recognizes the key role they play in helping millions of Americans get a leg up in postsecondary learning. Certificates are awarded by postsecondary institutions — most often, community colleges — and many have significant value in the job market. And because they are issued by postsecondary institutions and carry college credit, they offer a pathway to further education — especially to associate degrees.

To obtain the first-ever nationally representative data on postsecondary certificate attainment, Lumina contracted with NORC at the University of Chicago.1 NORC administered a survey on certificates that was developed by GEMEnA, the Federal Interagency Working Group on Expanded Measures of Enrollment and Attainment.2 To be sure we are counting high-quality certificates, we included only those whose holders reported they were employed in the field in which the certificate was awarded. As an additional check of the validity of the data, we compared the results to estimates on certificate attainment derived by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW).3 Because the numbers are very close, we are confident that CEW’s state-level estimates of high-quality certificates are accurate, and we have included them in the state-level data reported in this year’s Stronger Nation.

The recognition of high-quality certificates is long overdue, but it raises important issues for Lumina and for postsecondary education as a whole. We need to better understand certificates — who gets them and issues them, the pathways they offer to further education and employment, and what they represent in terms of learning. In future reports we will track the number of certificate holders who go on to obtain degrees.

Beyond certificates, there are other postsecondary credentials that potentially meet Lumina’s definition of high quality. In particular, certifications — industry-recognized credentials usually based on an assessment of skills and knowledge — often represent significant postsecondary learning and have great value in employment markets. However, the pathways to further education for those who hold certifications are not as clear as for those with certificates. Lumina is working to build stronger pathways into and through all forms of postsecondary learning in order to ensure that more Americans have opportunities for postsecondary learning.

1 Data and reports are available online from NORC. Visit: www.norc.org

2 GEMEnA works to develop and validate national measures of the participation in and credentialing of education and training for work. It also seeks to build government-wide consensus for the adoption of these measures in key federal data collections.

3 For each state, labor market experts at CEW calculated a certificate-attainment percentage by using Survey of Income Program Participation 2008 Wave 12 data (2012) and data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2014. Their calculations update work first published in a June 2012 report from CEW, Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees.

Degree-attainment rates among United States residents
(ages 25-64), by population group

White
Black
Hispanic
Asian
Native American

It’s about jobs … and equity

When Lumina released its first Stronger Nation report, the nation had entered the Great Recession — the worst economic dislocation of the entire postwar period. The Great Recession transformed the nation’s job markets in ways that made postsecondary skills essential for millions more Americans. Even though employment markets have since recovered to a large extent and overall employment is approaching pre-recession levels, the transformation of jobs in ways that increase the need for postsecondary skills is continuing; in fact, it seems to be accelerating.

A look at job losses in the Great Recession and job growth since tells the story. According to recent data from CEW, the number of jobs held by workers with a high school diploma or less declined by 6.3 million during the recession, and very few of these jobs — if any — have come back.4

Workers with some college or an associate degree also lost jobs during the Great Recession — 1.8 million jobs, to be exact. However, unlike jobs requiring high school and below, these jobs have more than come back. Today, there are 700,000 more jobs requiring some college or an associate degree than existed before the recession.

Contrary to anecdotal — and incorrect — reports throughout the media, the number of jobs requiring at least a bachelor’s degree did not decline during the Great Recession and has exploded in the recovery. Today, there are 8.1 million more jobs for Americans with a bachelor’s degree or above than existed when the recession began. Virtually all job growth in the U.S. since 2007 is in jobs requiring some form of postsecondary education.

The implications of this fundamental shift are profound for our society. But this is not just about jobs. Success in postsecondary learning determines whether Americans can buy homes, pay for health care, and save for retirement and their children’s education. Just as important, Americans who hold postsecondary credentials are more engaged in their communities — voting and volunteering at higher rates and showing greater appreciation for diverse cultures. When opportunities for postsecondary success are not available to all, fundamental inequities develop and spread through our society.

Numerous studies show that opportunities for postsecondary success in the U.S are not available to all. In particular, African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans continue to lag in postsecondary attainment. While the overall attainment rate is 45.3 percent, rates are much lower for African-Americans (34.2% percent), Hispanics (26.9 percent), and Native Americans.5 In contrast, the overall attainment rate for whites is 49.7 percent.

Low-income individuals and working adults also have limited postsecondary opportunities compared to other Americans. This not only adds to a troubling increase in income inequality, it also severely reduces economic and social mobility in the U.S. Indeed, the U.S. has now fallen below the average of other developed countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in one widely used measure of mobility. Only 5 percent of American children with parents who have not graduated from high school will graduate from college (the OECD average is 23 percent).6 The result is that lower-income Americans, including children born into poverty, have limited opportunities to advance since economic mobility is now so dependent on success in postsecondary learning.

4 A more precise way to describe what has happened is that recovery in the high-school-and-below job market has been offset by additional job losses that have continued in the recovery. The less-than-high-school job market has not recovered from the recession.

5 As the attainment graph above indicates, the degree-attainment rate for Native Americans is 23.74 percent. Unfortunately, we do not yet have an estimate of the percentage of Native Americans who hold high-quality certificates as their highest postsecondary credential.

6 OECD, Education at a Glance 2014, Table 4.2.

The trend in degree-attainment rates for United States residents
(ages 25-64), by population group

  • Total
  • White
  • Black
  • Hispanic
  • Asian
  • Native American

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey PUMS Files

The road map to Goal 2025

How do we turn this around and increase attainment to the levels needed by our nation?

According to Lumina’s attainment projection model, about 35.7 million Americans will earn postsecondary credentials that count toward Goal 2025 if current rates of degree and certificate production continue until 2025. Adding these graduates to those who have already obtained quality credentials and will still be in the workforce in 2025, the postsecondary attainment rate will reach 53.9 percent in 2025 — well above current rates, but not enough to reach Goal 2025. Again, to reach Goal 2025, 10.9 million more Americans now between 15 and 54 years old must be added to that total.

Where will we find these 10.9 million? What steps must we take as a nation to transform millions of underprepared citizens into those holding high-quality postsecondary credentials?

  • 3.7 million could come from Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 who will not complete postsecondary education with our current approaches. But this can happen only through wide-scale implementation of effective strategies to increase student success and close gaps in attainment for students from underrepresented groups.
  • 3.9 million could come from Americans between the ages of 25 and 54 — especially the roughly 27 million Americans in that age group who have attended college but not obtained a degree or other credential. But this can only happen if a true postsecondary learning system is in place to support the educational success of working adults. Employer-supported education could be instrumental in helping Americans obtain these credentials.
  • 3.3 million could come from Americans who hold a postsecondary certification as their highest credential — but only if those certifications meet Lumina’s definition of high quality. Since certifications are directly tied to workforce-relevant skills, recognizing employer-provided training and offering pathways from it to degrees and other postsecondary credentials will be a major driver in helping Americans obtain these credentials. But it’s important to note that these and other non-degree credentials should count toward Goal 2025 only when they offer genuine pathways to further education, as well as employment.

The 10.9 million additional credentials needed to reach Goal 2025 must go to Americans who, by definition, will be post-traditional learners — students who are not well served by current systems. Compared with current students, these post-traditional learners will be older, and more will be African-American, Hispanic and Native American. More will have lower incomes and be first-generation students. Serving these students better — and thereby closing gaps in attainment — is essential to increasing attainment rates overall.

Lumina’s Goal 2025 metrics

Lumina’s national metrics track progress on a set of interim measures that must increase for the nation to reach Goal 2025; these metrics include enrollment, persistence and graduation. There is good and bad news in the metrics information in this report. The number of graduates is arguably the most important metric because increasing it is the only way to increase attainment. Fortunately, it is at record levels. However, enrollment is down, which suggests that it may be difficult to maintain current levels of degree production into the future — much less increase them to the levels needed to reach Goal 2025.

Likewise, completion rates are not increasing — something Lumina considers essential to increase degree production and attainment to the necessary levels. We are guardedly optimistic that these downturns reflect improved employment prospects in a recovering economy and are therefore temporary. Since retention is up, we have some evidence to suggest that completion rates and degree production will increase in the near future. However, these numbers bear close attention from Lumina and all others focused on increasing attainment.

The agenda for action

Increasing attainment and reaching Goal 2025 is everyone’s job, and Lumina is working with individuals and groups across the nation to make it a reality. For example, we have helped established Community Partnerships for Attainment in 75 metropolitan regions across the U.S. In these communities, leaders from government, business, youth-serving organizations, K-12 education, colleges and universities, and many others are all focused on improving the performance of their local education systems so more local residents can find success in postsecondary learning.

Lumina is also working with state policy leaders across the nation to set attainment goals and develop and implement strong state plans to reach them. So far, 26 states have set rigorous and challenging attainment goals — 15 in the last year alone. Most of these states are taking concrete steps — such as implementing outcomes-based funding, improving developmental education, and making higher education more affordable — to increase attainment and reach their goals.

It doesn’t end there. Lumina is working with colleges and universities to implement a strong student success agenda, and with employer and industry groups to align their practices with the national postsecondary attainment agenda. Through all of these efforts and many others, real progress is being made.

Still, much work remains, and the nation is not yet on track to reach Goal 2025. In short, we have reached the point where urgent action is required to create the transformative change needed to reach Goal 2025. Lumina will continue to focus national attention on this urgent need, call attention to progress, and develop and implement solutions.

College enrollment among United States residents, ages 18-54

  1. Bar 1: Total Enrollment
  2. Bar 2: Ages 18-24
  3. Bar 3: Ages 25-54
  4. Bar 4: Hispanic
  5. Bar 5: African American
  6. Bar 6: Native American
  7. Bar 7: Asian/ Pacific Islander
  8. Bar 8: White

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2014 American Community Survey One-Year Public Use Microdata Sample

Note: These percentages reflect the enrollment of non-degree-holding students, ages 18-54, at public and private, two-year and four-year postsecondary institutions.

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