Black adult student engaged in online learning.

Since its launch 20 years ago, Lumina Foundation has focused on student access and success in the field of learning that takes place after high school. Today, that focus is more important than ever as society’s need for talent—and the drive to expand the proportion of Americans with quality education and training to meet this need—has grown more urgent.

The confluence of a pandemic, severe unemployment, and racial injustice has exposed the daunting challenges ahead. Yet, overcoming such adversity is what has made our country a success.

We know that quality of life—as measured by income, civic participation, and personal well-being—is highest among people with college degrees or other credentials of value and lowest among those with a high school diploma or less.

In my forthcoming book, Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines, I make the case that work is evolving to require broader knowledge, skills, and abilities. And the rewards for individuals with talent signified by possessing quality credentials will only increase. At the same time, those with nothing more than a high school diploma will face a declining quality of life and a downward spiral in their financial and social well-being.

That’s why having a plan, and being deliberate about getting to a specific goal, is so important.

Beginning in 2008, after many years of national stagnation in educational attainment, Lumina committed itself to catalyzing attainment to achieve a national goal of 60 percent attainment by 2025. Since then the share of the nation’s residents who are 25 to 64 with recognized quality degrees, certificates, or certifications has increased significantly. It moved from 37.9 percent in 2008 to 51.3 percent by 2018, the most recent year for which data are available, in part because we have become better at determining the value of short-term credentials, which can often lead to college degrees.

All told, 12 million more U.S. adults have college degrees and other quality credentials than in 2008, primarily because of attainment growth. During the past five years, the most significant increases have taken place because conditions set early on have taken root and are beginning to bear fruit.

At Lumina, we believe the 60 percent goal is within reach. Our projections show that, even with the barriers associated with a pandemic, unemployment, and racial injustice, attainment will reach 56 percent among working-age adults nationally if recent enrollment-and-retention trends and practices continue. The 4-percentage-point difference needed to achieve 60 percent means the nation will need to ensure that 6.9 million more people than anticipated earn credentials.

While within striking distance of the 60 percent goal, we all must do our part to rethink and reform education and training systems that have granted exceptional opportunities to some while leaving behind many Black, Hispanic, and Native American adults. Stark failures in leadership—combined with unfair policies, actions, beliefs, and assumptions often specifically designed to disadvantage people of color—keep many Black, Hispanic, and Native American people from the education and skills they need and desire.

A commitment to racial justice and equity deeply rooted in quality learning must continue to be the bedrock of all we do at Lumina. A lack of access to post-high school learning with strong academic, financial, and social supports has denied too many people of color the opportunities they need to advance economically and to fully participate in society. Racial disparities in the United States are widening, and without concerted efforts, this unfairness will worsen. Without quality learning opportunities, we cannot achieve equitable outcomes for all. And without higher levels of achievement among students who are Black, Hispanic, and Native American, claims of quality in education are unjustified.

Significant additional reforms are needed to bring the nation where it needs to be—and to promote a fairer distribution of talent among all adults. To accelerate progress, the United States must focus efforts on the people whom colleges, universities, and other education and training providers have served poorly, or not at all.

Today, 90 million working-age adults have no credential beyond a high school diploma. More than one-third of them, about 36 million people, attended college but left without finishing. Unfortunately, today’s education and training systems often fail to meet the needs of these individuals, many of whom are racially and ethnically diverse, immigrants, work full time, and have children. Many live in cities, towns, and suburbs, but large numbers also reside in neglected rural communities.

The remaining adults, or 60 percent of the 90 million, have no formal learning after high school and lack credentials valued in the workplace. They face vulnerabilities and struggle to fully participate in both the nation’s economy and in their local communities. They are more likely to experience poverty, unreliable access to food, indebtedness, unemployment, and a lack of access to stable housing. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the injustices and inequities facing these groups. Their circumstances reflect widening gaps in income, wealth, and access to basic economic opportunity and ladders to social mobility.

During the past decade, Lumina has concentrated resources and effort on working within states and communities and with employers and education and training providers to create conditions for a fair, learner-focused system that better prepares individuals for work and life. While the nation has made measurable progress, it has not been sufficient to develop the talent the country so desperately needs. We must now refine and implement strategies that accelerate and scale the redesign of systems to take us to 2025 and beyond.

This strategic plan, the fourth since 2008, represents Lumina’s closing argument for the 2025 goal.

We are intensifying our push toward a more just and fair society, one that ensures paths for people who might otherwise be left behind. Our aim is to make the individual and societal benefits of a better-educated country a reality for millions more Americans and recent immigrants. Economic studies indicate the demand for people with college degrees or other quality credentials will increase even after 2025.

We believe achievement of the 60 percent goal will set the stage for new national objectives to create even greater economic opportunity and social mobility through widespread learning after high school. So, how will we prioritize our work to make 60 percent a reality and strengthen the nation’s evolving, globally interconnected talent economy?

We will support and expand evidence-based practices that can meet the nation’s pressing needs. We will push hardest on equity-first strategies, those that are most likely to produce fairer results. We will adjust—or phase out—efforts that are not aimed squarely at accelerating attainment within the next several years. And we will develop capacity to meet the education and training needs of individuals and society beyond 2025. Lumina is committed to helping the nation redesign post-high school learning to help an additional 6.9 million adults—beyond those who are already on track—earn the degrees, certificates, and industry certifications necessary to increase national attainment among working-age adults to 60 percent.

We hope you will join us in this concerted push to develop the individual and collective talent we will need to flourish as a society.

Lumina Plans To Help 6.9 Million More Americans Earn Post-Secondary Credentials: Community Colleges Are Key | Forbes | September 15, 2020

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