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A STRONGER NATION: United States Makes Modest Progress in College Attainment Rates, New Report Finds

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“More people are graduating from college, but the current pace is not sufficient,”

The percentage of Americans aged twenty-five to sixty-four years with a two- or four-year college degree was 38.3 percent in 2010, a slight increase from 2009 (38.1 percent) and 2008 (37.9 percent), according to a new report from the Lumina Foundation, which adopted a “Big Goal” in 2009 that 60 percent of Americans obtain a high-quality postsecondary degree or credential by 2025. The report, A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education, is the third in a series updating progress toward the 2025 goal, and is based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“More people are graduating from college, but the current pace is not sufficient,” said Jamie P. Merisotis, president and chief executive officer of the Lumina Foundation. “America is grappling with how to grow jobs, skills, and opportunity, and this report highlights the economic imperative of getting a postsecondary degree. This issue can’t be wished away by fanciful talk about higher education ‘bubbles’ and whether college is worth it. Education is the only route to economic prosperity for both individuals and the nation. That should matter to policymakers. It should matter to business leaders. And it certainly should matter to our education leaders.”

Pointing to what it calls a “changing climate,” the report notes that some progress has been made since the first A Stronger Nation report in 2009. Specifically, it credits President Obama for focusing national attention on the need to increase higher education attainment by setting a 60 percent higher education attainment goal by 2020—five years earlier than the Lumina Foundation’s goal. Additionally, the report notes that thirty-six states now have formal goals in place for college attainment established in statute, executive order, or statewide strategic plans.

Noting that the higher education attainment rate of individuals aged twenty-five to thirty-four years is a “good leading indicator” of where rates are headed, the report points out that the attainment rate for young adults was 39.3 percent in 2010—one full percentage point higher than for all adults. “This is a step in the right direction,” it reads. At the same time, however, separate data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) finds that America ranked fifteenth among the thirty-four OECD nations, indicating that the United States has much work to do to lead the world in higher education attainment rates and meet Obama’s 2020 goal.

According to A Stronger Nation, only 47 percent of Americans will have at least an associate degree by 2025 if the current pace holds, which is well short of the 60 percent goal. It finds that meeting the 2025 goal will mean that 103 million Americans aged twenty-five to sixty-four years will need a college degree.

The report also finds that about 37 million degrees are already held by people who will still be in the workforce in 2025, leaving 66 million degrees left to be obtained in order to reach the goal. Based on the current rate, the American higher education system can be expected to award 38.3 million new degrees between now and 2025 and another 4.4 million will be held by immigrants, leaving a gap of 23.3 million new degrees that will need to be awarded.

The report offers several areas where progress can be made, including raising high school graduation rates and college-going rates, as well as focusing on adults who already have some college credit but fell short of a degree. It also stresses that the nation must increase college success among the fastest-growing groups that will account for a growing proportion of the nation’s population, including low-income and first-generation students, and students of color.

According to the report, 59.4 percent of Asian Americans and 43 percent of whites have higher education degrees, compared to only 26.8 percent of African Americans, 22.8 percent of Native Americans, and 19.2 percent of Hispanics.

“We simply cannot reach the Big Goal without addressing the considerable equity gaps in this country,” Merisotis said. “Students of color are an integral part of the 23 million, along with low-income students, first-generation students, and returning adults.”

The report also includes an analysis of higher education attainment for each state, including a county-by-county report for each state. The top five and bottom five states are in the table below.

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Finally, the report breaks down higher education attainment data for the largest 100 metropolitan areas in the United States. To date, none of these metro areas have reached the 60 percent goal and only eight have crossed the 50 percent mark: Washington, DC (54.4 percent); San Jose, CA (54.1 percent); Boston, MA (54 percent); Madison, WI (53.7 percent); Bridgeport, CT (53.3 percent); San Francisco, CA (52.9 percent); Raleigh, NC (52.7 percent); and Minneapolis, MN (50.1 percent).

The complete A Stronger Nation report, including state profiles and metropolitan area data, is available at http://www.luminafoundation.org/publications/A_Stronger_Nation-2012.pdf.

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