In 2009, Lumina Foundation officially adopted its Big Goal that 60 percent of Americans obtain a high-quality postsecondary degree or credential by 2025. That same year, we began reporting on progress toward the Big Goal in a series of reports titled A Stronger Nation through Higher Education. The core of the reports is Census data on the higher education attainment rate — the percentage of the U.S. adult population that holds a two- or four-year college degree. The attainment rate remains the key metric for the Big Goal.

This is the third Stronger Nation report, and it contains several additions and improvements designed to make it more pertinent and useful:

  • An assessment of higher education attainment in the nation and in every state, showing recent progress toward the Big Goal.
  • The attainment rate for every county in the United States.
  • Various breakdowns of the attainment data, including by race and ethnicity, age, and level of education.
  • A new report on the attainment rate for the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas.
  • A scenario for how to close the gap and reach 60 percent attainment by 2025.

As in past years, in this report we also attempt to get behind the data — to understand higher education attainment and its ramifications for the future of our nation. This year we discuss our deepening understanding of the relationship between higher education attainment and the nation’s economy, particularly job growth and employment. We also discuss the role that quality plays in the drive to increase attainment, particularly as quality is defined in terms of learning.

Lumina Foundation will continue to produce Stronger Nation reports regularly to track progress toward the Big Goal.

The bottom line

In 2010, the percentage of Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 — working-age adults — who held a two- or four-year college degree was 38.3 percent. The rate is increasing slowly but steadily. In 2009, the rate was 38.1 percent, and in 2008 it was 37.9 percent.

Because of the wide range of ages in the adult population represented by the Big Goal, the higher education attainment rate of the young-adult population (ages 25-34) is a good leading indicator of where higher education attainment rates are headed. In 2010, the attainment rate for young adults was 39.3 percent — a full percentage point higher than for all adults. In 2009, the rate for young adults was 39.0 percent, and in 2008 it was 37.8 percent. This is a step in the right direction — in 2008 the higher education attainment rate for young adults was below that of the adult population as a whole. However, this trend must accelerate if the nation is to reach the Big Goal.

A changing climate

A lot has changed in the U.S. — and in American higher education — since the first Stronger Nation report was issued.

The president has continued to focus national attention on the need to increase higher education attainment, calling it “an economic imperative” in his most recent State of the Union address. A growing number of states have adopted formal goals for college attainment. In fact, 36 states now have specific goals for attainment established in statute, executive order or statewide strategic plans; 15 of these states set challenging and specific goals and commit to ongoing measurement of progress. Many colleges and universities and a number of national higher education associations have attainment goals as well.

The need to increase higher education attainment is increasingly recognized by civic leaders in cities across the nation. We believe this recognition is both important and extremely constructive, since cities can help raise the educational aspirations of many students, help align K-12 education with expectations for college readiness, and help develop innovative programs to meet emerging occupational needs. Lumina feels strongly enough about the role of civic leadership in the attainment agenda to include in this edition of Stronger Nation — for the first time — college-attainment data for the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas.

The value of setting specific and measurable goals for college completion and attainment should not be under-estimated. Not only do such goals help communicate to the public and higher education stakeholders the urgent priority to dramatically increase postsecondary completion and attainment, they also help focus the strategies that foundations, states and institutions must pursue to meet the goals. Because of these goals, factors that influence attainment — most notably, the need to improve completion rates in higher education — are receiving much more attention at the federal, state and institutional levels.

Lumina Foundation has begun reaching out to other groups that have a stake in increasing higher education attainment, including students and employers. Through our Goal 2025 initiative, Lumina is working to move beyond awareness of the need to increase attainment to a commitment to act. Employers, in particular, can play a key role in this effort by supporting the educational advancement of their own workers, as well as advocating for policies that increase attainment.

Higher education and jobs

The rationale for increasing higher education attainment is also much more widely understood than ever before. Most now agree that, as a nation, we desperately need more citizens with postsecondary degrees. We need them to bolster our economy, to strengthen our democracy, to lead our communities and more.

Understandably, however, the main focus has been on jobs and the fact that a growing number of them require some form of postsecondary education. According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 60 percent of U.S. jobs will require some form of postsecondary education by 2018. For individual Americans, the consequences of not completing some form of postsecondary education are increasingly dire — especially in this economy.

For many years, the main reason many people went to college was to gain access to better-paying jobs that allowed them to earn more throughout their lives. But earnings potential is no longer the main driver. In this economy, the issue is whether you even have a job. According to the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, in 2010 at the peak of U.S. unemployment rates, around 8 percent of baccalaureate degree holders were unemployed or underemployed. But the situation for those with less education was even more serious. For high school graduates, the rate of unemployment and underemployment reached 21 percent, while for high school dropouts it peaked at 32 percent.

Given these figures, it’s no wonder that millions are seeking postsecondary education — or that policymakers and higher education leaders are focused on increasing the number of Americans with college degrees and other postsecondary credentials. But the drive to increase attainment is not without its critics. In particular, it has become fashionable in some quarters to suggest that higher education is no longer worth the cost. Some in the public sphere have garnered a lot of publicity by saying there is a “higher education bubble” and advising bright young people to skip college and instead use their savings to start their own businesses. Newspapers and magazines are full of stories about the poor job prospects for recent college graduates, and nearly everyone seems to have heard about a college graduate who is supposedly living in his parents’ basement or driving a cab. It’s certainly true that college costs much more than it used to, and more students are taking on debt to pay for it. So it’s become reasonable to ask the once-heretical question: Is college worth it?

What about all those unemployed college graduates? A recent analysis by the Georgetown Center found that 8.9 percent of 22- to 26-year-olds with bachelor’s degrees are unemployed. That’s high by any measure, but probably not as bad as might be expected given the amount of media coverage of the supposed oversupply of college and university graduates. The unemployment rate for that same 22- to 26-year-old population with only a high school diploma is 22.9 percent, and it’s a staggering 31.5 percent for high school dropouts. And it is almost certain that, as the economy recovers, the college graduates will be the first ones hired.

It’s not hard to figure out what is behind these numbers. Occupations that require higher-level skills — healthcare, for example — are growing. Low-skill jobs aren’t exactly disappearing, but their numbers are shrinking, leaving more workers competing for them. The skill and knowledge requirements of most occupations are increasing, and people with only a high school diploma or less are unable to fill many of the jobs that the knowledge economy is creating. It’s like two games of musical chairs, where chairs are taken away from one game — the one for low-skill workers — and added to the game for workers with the skills and knowledge that today’s workplace demands.

An emerging understanding of quality

At Lumina, we believe strongly that increasing the number of Americans with high-quality postsecondary degrees and credentials to 60 percent by the year 2025 is essential, but we also believe that merely increasing the number of college graduates isn’t enough. We know very clearly that the need for more college graduates is driven by real demand for the skills and knowledge that the degrees represent. Quite frankly, without a sharper focus on the quality of learning, increased degree attainment is meaningless.

For too long, quality in higher education has been thought of mainly as a characteristic of institutions and programs. It is correlated with things such as admissions selectivity, faculty credentials, class size, campus amenities, the size of the endowment — even the price of tuition. Unfortunately, most people still think of higher education quality in terms of these input measures. But inputs are not now — and probably never have been — a true measure of quality. Today, actual outcomes are what matter, particularly outcomes for students.

To better define higher education quality in terms of learning outcomes, Lumina has introduced the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP). Drafted by experts in American higher education, the DQP is a framework for clearly defining the learning represented by college degrees. It is a baseline set of reference points for what students in any field should be able to do to earn their degrees.

Currently, the DQP is being tested at more than 100 institutions in 30 states, representing virtually every sector of nonprofit higher education. It outlines five areas of student learning — specialized knowledge, broad knowledge, intellectual skills, applied learning and civic learning. While each of the five areas is described independently, the areas clearly interact, both in learning and in application. Students must apply their learning in a variety of settings and be able to solve problems that span disciplines. The expectation for student performance ratchets up from associate degree to bachelor’s to master’s.

From this effort, we have already learned that there is value in explicitly defining — and putting in writing — what a degree represents in terms of learning. Again, the idea is to clearly demonstrate what a degree holder knows and is able to do with the degree he or she has earned. We have also learned that there is actually a great deal of consensus among educators and employers about the knowledge and skills that students need — and about how they should be able to apply them — as they progress from the associate degree to the bachelor’s and on to the master’s. The work of the past several decades on learning outcomes has produced an impressive body of knowledge that can be built on. And the data from employers strongly suggest that what they need from college graduates aligns with what educators are saying.

Degrees matter, so we must increase the number of Americans who complete college degrees. But in the final analysis, college degrees must represent real learning. With the DQP, higher education can be accountable for the learning of its graduates. A list of credits earned and courses taken does not provide that assurance of quality. Being accountable for the quality and integrity of degrees means we must be accountable for student learning. We hope that the DQP continues to develop into an effective tool that all of higher education can use to define quality — and quality degrees — in terms of student learning.

The road ahead

The need to increase higher education attainment is clear and critical. America is grappling with the challenge of how to grow jobs, skills and opportunity. The issue can’t be wished away by trendy talk about higher education bubbles and simplistic questions about whether college is still “worth it.” America needs more college graduates. It’s the only viable route to economic prosperity — for individuals and for the nation.

One Response to Tracking progress toward an audacious but attainable goal

  1. Dan Johnson says:

    I strongly support what you are doing nationally. Several of us will be trying harder to help our young people here in Toledo hear the message on the importance of higher education. Many thanks for your great leadership on this important issue!
    Dan Johnson

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *