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A STRONGER NATION THROUGH HIGHER EDUCATION: U.S. College Attainment Increases, but More Work Needed to Reach 60 Percent Goal, Finds New Lumina Foundation Report

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Although the percentage of Americans with a college degree is moving in the right direction, the report sees challenges on the horizon, especially as the U.S. population becomes more diverse.

In 2012, 39.4 percent of Americans aged twenty-five to sixty-four held a two- or four-year college degree, an increase of 0.7 percentage points from 2011 and the largest year-over-year increase since 2008, according to a new report from the Lumina Foundation. The report, A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education, is the fifth in a series tracking the United States’s progress toward the goal that 60 percent of Americans obtain a high-quality postsecondary credential by 2025.

“Momentum is building around increased attainment in America, and we believe that the need—the hunger—for education beyond high school is stronger than even before,” said Jamie P. Merisotis, president and chief executive officer of Lumina Foundation. “Recent student-centered changes in American higher education have made this progress possible. Now, it’s time to accelerate the system redesign so that we can meet future workforce needs, strengthen our democracy and give all Americans—regardless of race, income, and other socioeconomic factors—the opportunities that postsecondary attainment provides.”

Even with the gains, other countries continue to outpace the United States, the report notes. Based on recent data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) cited in the report, the attainment rate for Americans aged twenty-five to thirty-four (43 percent) is only slightly higher than for Americans aged fifty-five to sixty four (41 percent). Conversely, South Korea has made huge gains among its younger adults to the point where more than 60 percent of individuals aged twenty-five to thirty-four completed education beyond high school, as shown in the graph below. And Canada, where attainment rates for older individuals is roughly equal to that of the United States, is now significantly ahead of the United States based on the attainment rates for younger individuals. (Click on the image for a larger version).

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Although the percentage of Americans with a college degree is moving in the right direction, the report sees challenges on the horizon, especially as the U.S. population becomes more diverse. As shown in the image below, the percentages of Hispanic, black, American Indian, and Asian and Pacific Islander individuals are projected to grow dramatically by 2025 while the white population is expected to decline by 5.4 percent. Noting that very low percentages of black (27.6 percent), Native American (23.4 percent), and Hispanic individuals (19.8 percent) currently hold degrees, the report projects that only about 37.8 percent of working-age Americans will have a college degree in 2025—nearly 1 percentage point lower than the current rate—if attainment rates for racial and ethnic groups do not improve. (Click on the image for a larger version).

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The report finds hope in increases in college-going rates among high school students of color. For example, the college-going rate for blacks increased from 62 percent in 2010 to 67.1 percent in 2011 while the rate for Hispanics increased from 57.9 percent to 66.6 percent. At the same time, however, college completion rates among these groups of students trail their white peers. In 2011, the six-year graduation rate for white students was 62 percent, compared to less than 40 percent for black students and 51 percent for Hispanic students. “Increasing completion rates for nonwhite students is absolutely essential to increasing the nation’s higher education attainment rate, just as it is for realizing the promise represented by the increased college enrollment of these students,” the report notes.

To meet the 60 percent goal, the nation’s higher education system will need to assume a more student-centered approach, the report argues. Specifically it must adopt three basic requirements: (1) base postsecondary credentials, including degrees, on learning; (2) create smarter pathways for all students; and (3) make higher education accessible and affordable to all who need it.

The complete report is available at http://www.luminafoundation.org/stronger_nation/.

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