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A STRONGER NATION THROUGH HIGHER EDUCATION: A Call to the Nation to Vastly Improve College Attainment Rates

“The opportunity to change the rules of the game and create a higher education system capable of producing much higher levels of attainment is before us. We can get there, but we clearly have work to do.”

Two years ago, the Lumina Foundation for Education (Lumina) called for the United States to increase higher education attainment rates to 60 percent by the year 2025. The Indianapolis-based, private, independent foundation, nicknamed this initiative “Lumina’s Big Goal” and reports on the country’s progress in its annual report entitled A Stronger Nation through Higher Education.

This year’s report finds that 37.9 percent of Americans aged twenty-five to sixty-four held a two- or four-year college degree. This represents a minimal increase from 2007 when the number was 37.7 percent. If the current rate of increase persists then by 2025 the United States will only have reached a higher education attainment level of less than 47 percent.

“Reaching the ‘Big Goal’ is a national economic and social imperative,” said Jamie Merisotis, Lumina’s president and chief executive officer. “The opportunity to change the rules of the game and create a higher education system capable of producing much higher levels of attainment is before us. We can get there, but we clearly have work to do.”

To stay on track towards Lumina’s “Big Goal,” the United States needs to increase the number of college degrees awarded each year by 278,000 every year. However, given the current rate of degree production, the number of graduates can only be expected to increase by 112,000 per year; this means that an additional 166,000 college degrees are needed each year to hit the 60 percent attainment rate.

A Stronger Nation also provides progress information on a state-by-state basis, including the current level of higher education attainment, the rate of improvement in attainment over the past eight years, and the level of increase needed to reach the target. Each state profile also includes information at county levels.

“When we first set this Big Goal, we knew it would be ambitious, but now it is clear that not only is it necessary—it is also realistic and attainable,” said Merisotis. “Different states have different challenges, but all states have a clear pathway to increase attainment rates.”

In 2008, the most recent year for which data is available, Massachusetts had the highest percentage of adults with college degrees (49.6 percent), followed by Connecticut (46.6 percent), New Hampshire (46 percent), and Colorado (45.3 percent). On the other end of the spectrum, West Virginia had the lowest college attainment level (25.6 percent) just behind Arkansas (26.5 percent), Louisiana (27 percent), and Kentucky (29.2 percent). In order to reach the Big Goal, Nevada needs to achieve an annual percentage increase of 10.1 percent in college degrees while North Dakota only needs a 3.1 percent annual increase to reach the goal line by 2025. Nationwide, a 6.3 percent annual increase is necessary.

The report stresses that simply increasing college completion rates is not enough—efforts must also be made to close gaps in college participation and attainment for a range of underrepresented populations, including students of color, low-income and first-generation students, and adults. According to the report, only 18.6 percent of Hispanics, 22.5 percent of American Indians, and 26.2 percent of African Americans possess higher education degrees, compared to 59.2 percent of Asians and 42.2 percent of whites. The report notes that it will be impossible to reach the Big Goal without closing these attainment gaps. To reach their goal, Lumina proposes a number of strategies for states including:

  • increasing the rate at which students complete college degrees;
  • providing ways for adults in the workforce to return to college to complete degrees; and
  • focusing on the growing needs of low-income, first-generation, and minority students.

The report explains that colleges and universities must focus on both participation and completion for all students to increase attainment levels. It calls on higher education systems to better define the learning outcomes that students must obtain at each level of education and then ensure that academic programs give students the opportunity to achieve those outcomes.

A Stronger Nation uses data from the U.S. Census American Community Survey. Read the full report at

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