By now, anyone who is at all familiar with Lumina Foundation has heard about the Big Goal for college attainment. For several years, the goal — that, by the year 2025, 60 percent of Americans will have a high-quality postsecondary credential — has driven and essentially defined us at Lumina. And we’re pleased that it is driving others as well. College attainment is now a central topic in the public conversation at the national, state and local levels. Policymakers, economists and other experts agree that, in order to sustain the still-fragile recovery and assure long-term economic growth and social stability, the nation’s educational attainment rate must improve steadily and significantly in coming years.
This report, A Stronger Nation through Higher Education, embodies Lumina’s commitment to that 60 percent Big Goal and serves as a report card on the nation’s effort to reach it. This edition of Stronger Nation marks the third report in what will be an annual series through the target date of 2025. Using the most recent Census data (2010), it provides detailed breakdowns of college-attainment data at the national level, in each state, and in every county. At the national and state levels, the data also show attainment rates among various racial/ethnic groups. Also, this year, for the first time, the report includes college-attainment rates for the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas.
As always, Stronger Nation acts as a timely barometer of progress, a window on statistical reality when it comes to higher education attainment. But it’s much more than mere numbers. In fact, this year Stronger Nation can and should be viewed in other important ways.
First of all, look at it as an alarm, an urgent call to action. The numbers themselves convey this message of urgency. Although the overall trend is positive (with the national attainment rate rising from 37.9 percent in 2008 to 38.3 percent in 2010), the pace of change is far too slow. In fact, at the current pace, less than 47 percent of Americans will have at least an associate degree by 2025. Labor experts say that means we will be more than 23 million degree holders below the total needed to meet workforce demands.
We simply cannot afford this shortfall — not as a nation built on the concept of individual opportunity, or as a society committed to social progress. That means the pace of progress in higher education attainment must improve sharply. And for that to happen, the scale and scope of change must expand dramatically.
Facing a “Kodak moment”
In some ways, American higher education is facing what might be called a “Kodak moment” — and that’s not a good thing. The recent bankruptcy of the Eastman Kodak Company, an iconic American corporation if ever there was one, holds a lesson for today’s higher-ed system. Kodak, long respected for its traditional approach and even treasured for its popular Brownie and Instamatic cameras, simply reacted too slowly to the age of digital photography … and suddenly found itself irrelevant.
Of course, American colleges and universities are by no means irrelevant today, but they certainly can’t stand pat — not if they expect to meet the challenges inherent in the drive to reach the Big Goal. Without question, higher education must change. For one thing, it must become responsive to the needs of a much wider range of students than ever before. The 21st century student population is dizzyingly diverse — racially, ethnically, socially, economically, and in terms of age and family situation. Clearly, no one-size-fits-all system will work for these students, and it won’t serve us as a nation.
So the higher-ed system must be retooled and redesigned to meet the needs of all types of students because we need these 21st century students to succeed — without delay and in far greater numbers. In other words, higher education must become much more productive — educating many more people without increasing costs, and without compromising the quality of the credentials that students earn.
A good first step in boosting productivity and in serving today’s diverse student population is to begin with adults who already have some college credit but lack a degree. More than 36 million adults — one out of every five working-age Americans — fit this category. Colleges and universities must be innovative, expansive and flexible to help these students — to help all students — earn degrees and credentials that have genuine relevance and value.
And in serving today’s students, that word “value” is important because it points to the second change that’s needed. That is: a redefinition of “quality” in higher education — one rooted, not in the concept of inputs (large endowments, impressive facilities, highly selective admission policies, steep tuition costs), but in the idea of outputs (the knowledge and skills that graduates actually demonstrate).
In today’s society and economy, the only definition of quality that makes sense is one based on student outcomes, on what students actually learn in their programs and what they can do with the skills and knowledge they gain. Mere college completion can’t be the ultimate aim. The true goal must be completion with connection — a credential that connects clearly to the workforce and to opportunities for further education.
Still, completion rates certainly matter, and the data in this report can be a very valuable aid in tracking those rates — and, ultimately, in improving them. That’s another important way in which this year’s Stronger Nation report can be viewed: as a tool you can use to actually tackle this work.
The numbers and trends in this report tell thousands of vital, real-life stories: about college attainment in your state, your county, the metropolitan area in which you live or work. The data here can help you pinpoint problems or opportunities in particular geographic areas and among certain groups of students. They can suggest possible partnerships for increasing college success — a coalition among educators, policymakers and workforce organizations in a certain region or metro area, for example; perhaps a compact among higher-education institutions serving a particular geographic region or student population; or a cooperative effort among policy-makers in contiguous states or counties.
A powerful tool
Again, Stronger Nation is designed as a tool, and we urge you to use it — as we ourselves plan to use it in our own work at Lumina. This report, and the data on which it is based, isn’t a mere public relations exercise. It is central to our mission, and it has already shaped our work in fundamental ways, pointing us toward areas in which our efforts are likely to have the greatest impact — the “working adult” student population, for example.
And that leads me to the final way in which the Stronger Nation report might be viewed: Look at it as a promise … our promise to stay focused on this effort. Lumina Foundation is absolutely committed to the Big Goal, and that means this report can’t be a one-and-done enterprise. As an organization — really, as a nation — we can only stay on track toward that goal by looking regularly and closely at the data, and we see Stronger Nation as a very good lens for learning.
I hope you’ll use that lens creatively and often, and I urge you to join with us in applying its lessons to the vital effort of increasing college attainment. You can be assured that Lumina is ready and eager to collaborate, to assist and to help connect groups and organizations that share our commitment to reaching the Big Goal.
Jamie P. Merisotis
President and CEO