The Big Goal calls for the United States to reach a 60 percent higher education attainment rate by 2025, compared to the current rate of 38 percent. Lumina and many others are working on strategies to reach the Big Goal, but what will it actually take? How many degrees do we need, and where will they come from?

To reach a 60 percent higher education attainment rate in 2025, 103 million Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 will need a college degree (that’s 60 percent of the projected 2025 U.S. population in that age range). About 37 million of those degrees have already been produced — they’re held by people who are young enough that they’ll still be in the workforce in 2025. That leaves 66 million new degrees. At current rates, the American higher education system can be expected to produce 38.3 million new degrees between now and 2025. Another 4.4 million will come from immigrants who come to this country with college degrees. That leaves a gap of 23.3 million new degrees that we need to produce.

Plug the pipeline

The first place to go for those degrees is to plug the leaks in the education pipeline. One good step would be to increase the high school graduation rate and college-going rate from high school to 75 percent and 70 percent respectively. These increased rates, which would still be lower than those already achieved by the best-performing U.S. states, would produce 3.6 million new degrees. Increasing completion rates in public colleges and universities to levels above where they are now but below today’s best-performing states would yield an additional 5.3 million degrees. The total impact of these ambitious but realistic approaches would be about 9 million additional college degrees — a substantial increase, but less than half of what is necessary to reach the Big Goal.

Producing the rest of the degrees needed to reach the 60 percent goal will require innovative efforts outside the mainstream of current thinking. First, we can get more college degrees from adults — both those who didn’t go to college directly from high school, and those who went to college but left without a degree. Increasing enrollment by students who did not go to college when they graduated from high school could realistically add 1.5 million college graduates to the total. Going after adults who attended college but never completed a degree would yield even more. Today, 36.2 million Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 fall into this category. If just 10 percent of them completed a degree or other high-quality credential, 3.6 million degree holders would be added to the total.

The next step is to include high-value certificates. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has calculated that approximately 5 percent of adults between the ages of 25 and 64 have a postsecondary certificate as their highest level of education, and have earnings equivalent to those of two-year degree holders.

Certificates matter

To be counted under Lumina’s definition of high-quality degrees or credentials (those with clear and transparent learning outcomes leading to further education and employment), these certificates should be recognized in terms of learning outcomes and have clear pathways to further degrees. Once this is accomplished, counting these certificate holders would add 10.3 million degrees to the total.

Even more innovative approaches are possible in the drive to reach the Big Goal, such as taking advantage of the burgeoning expansion of open courseware to create new pathways to degrees. Another innovative effort could be to significantly expand the availability of prior learning assessment (PLA), including granting degrees based on PLA. If made widely available, these approaches might produce more than 2 million new degrees by 2025.

Undoubtedly, there are other promising ideas for increasing the number of college graduates. Getting to the Big Goal will require a combination of proven and innovative strategies.

The cumulative effect of the approaches described above would be to produce 26.3 million new degrees — enough for the U.S. to reach an attainment rate of 62 percent by 2025. These aggressive but attainable targets show how the Big Goal can be reached.

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