Step Two

Create a cross-sector partnership committed to changing systems


The U.S. has made substantial progress recently in improving access to higher education: High school graduates are enrolling in college in record numbers, and first-generation students now make up a third of all college enrollees thanks to increased awareness and outreach, scholarships, and economic forces.

But you won’t develop the talent you need if you focus only on increasing access; you must also commit to improving success—that is, attainment of a credential. Put simply, it doesn’t matter so much if you open up opportunities for college if students don’t actually go, or finish, or get out of the experience what they and their future employers need. Twenty-six percent of working-age Americans have no credential beyond a high school degree, only 20 percent have a bachelor’s degree, and more than 15 percent left college before graduating. Your goal is to improve these numbers.

Note that “attainment” includes more than traditional two- and four-year college degrees. Talent-building sites work to ensure that people can earn other kinds of credentials as well.

Here are some important things to consider when thinking about how to improve this crucial measure:

Set a specific attainment goal

By how much do you want attainment to improve, and by when? In setting these benchmarks, it’s important that you be specific, ambitious, and realistic. And that you regularly assess them. About 47 percent of working-age Americans now hold a post-high school credential, including workforce-relevant certificates. Lumina’s goal is for 60 percent of Americans to have these credentials by 2025. Since 2008, attainment has increased by 9 percent, but we are falling short. Ask: Does your state have an attainment goal? Should your community aim higher or lower?

Here are a few examples from successful communities that show how precisely articulated these goals are:

  • “Increase the attainment rate of Black and Hispanic adults by 2 percent, respectively, each year, moving toward 25.9 percent post-high school attainment for Black adults and 25.08 percent for Hispanic adults by 2020.” (Southwest Florida)

  • “Contribute a total of 3,060 additional degrees and certificates by 2020 by reaching out to 6,420 stop-outs, including 4,036 who have 48 or more credits.” (Detroit)

  • “Increase credentials conferred to 18- to 24-year-olds by 30 percent (by August 31, 2021) from a baseline of 5,094 in 2016. At least 821 of these credentials will be conferred to Black and Hispanic students. Increase by 157 credentials (82 equity students) in 2019; increase by 628 credentials (328 equity) in 2020; increase by 771 credentials (411 equity) in 2021.” (Las Vegas)

Determine what groups to target

A key consideration for communities is which group of potential students and prospective workers they most want to reach. Traditional-age students just out of high school? Older workers with no college experience? Students who have some college but who have left without graduating? You will need to collect and analyze data to determine where the greatest potential lies, doing so with a focus on equity. You can then deploy your efforts and resources accordingly. Among the many sources of data:

  • The National Student Clearinghouse conducts research, verifies transcripts, and tracks student outcomes from kindergarten through college and into the workforce. You can see where your region’s high school students went on to post-high school work and whether they earned a certificate or a degree. (The records cover nearly all students in public and private colleges in the U.S.) You can compare enrollment patterns district-by-district and state-by-state and do cost-benefit analyses of various institutions and sectors. The Clearinghouse’s research report “Some College; No Degree,” an exhaustive study of the approximately 36 million Americans who have some post-high school learning but no credential, can help you understand non-completers and ways to bring them back.

  • The American Community Survey, an annual sampling of 3.5 million households conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, is the foremost, most detailed source of information about American demographics. More current than the decennial Census, it contains valuable information about employment, educational attainment, housing, poverty status, income, citizenship, internet use, health insurance, and more. It dives deeply into census tracts and disaggregates data by race, age, and gender.

Conduct outreach to targeted groups

Once you have identified the populations to target, the partners must develop a strategy to find them and engage them, laying out the opportunities and benefits of education beyond high school through a variety of strategies and avenues.

Here are some ways that talent-focused communities are reaching out to potential students:

  • Nashville’s chamber of commerce has trained over 160 people to serve as “reconnect ambassadors,” advocates who work in their own communities to encourage adult residents to return to college or a certificate program or enroll for the first time. The idea is that prospective students are more likely to make the choice if they hear about it from friends, co-workers, or fellow church members. So the program trains people across these communities on how to connect others to education and resources. (See also Reconnect Cafes under “Advising.”)

  • Corpus Christi is building awareness of learning opportunities through a partnership with a local television station, including hosting segments on Spanish-language television. The backbone organization Coastal Compass hosts a weekly series on college success, as well as “ask-the-expert” segments on financial aid. It also holds workshops for returning students that help them with study skills, time management, financial literacy, and career preparation.

  • Albuquerque’s outreach is both broad and targeted. The completion initiative Graduate ABQ promotes its services through Facebook, Twitter, special events, outreach to community organizations, and in literature distributed at the city’s workforce connection center. The United Way of Central New Mexico, the initiative’s backbone organization, is also promoting Graduate ABQ in connection with its free tax preparation program for low-income filers.

  • Detroit colleges have identified thousands of “comebackers” by working with business and community groups to reach out on social media, place stories in newspapers and on television, post ads on buses, and distribute paper fans in the pews of local churches. Partners are also spreading the word at community events, faith-based gatherings, city council meetings, and parent workshops connected to the Detroit Promise program, which guarantees eligible graduates of the city’s public high schools free tuition at many Michigan universities.

  • Confronted with outdated contact information for former students, Texas Southmost College in the Rio Grande Valley now also uses information for the emergency-contact individuals the students provided when first enrolled. And to prevent returned mail, the college uses software to verify addresses and make sure they fit U.S. Postal Service formatting standards. For students interested in returning, the college has assigned peer mentors who make necessary appointments and arrange visits to the admissions, advising, and financial aid offices.

Tailor your attainment efforts to a changing demographic. You know that the students who will make up your workforce don’t look much like the students of yesterday. More than 38 percent of college students are over the age of 25, half of them are on their own financially, and 4.8 million are parents—most with no money to pay for school. At the same time, many of these students who do enroll face huge barriers to completion. Family responsibilities, transportation problems, financial insecurity—these are a few of the hurdles that stand between many individuals and a degree or credential.

You have already accepted that it takes the whole community to help students and employees overcome these barriers. Your colleges, businesses, and community and civic groups now must be strategic and intentional in helping them do so; they must be willing to tear down old structures and erect new ones. For your college partners, that means building clearer pathways to degrees, embracing new modes of instruction, and designing flexible schedules that serve the students colleges have, rather than the students they wish they had. In short, you want to move from faculty-oriented models to student-centered ones.