First-time data on certificates add to understanding of attainment; Urgent action needed to increase postsecondary success—even with steady progress on degrees, more needed for 2025 goal

INDIANAPOLIS–The U.S. is making slow, but steady progress in the number of Americans who hold high-quality credentials beyond high school diplomas. New data on nationwide postsecondary attainment released today by Lumina Foundation in its latest A Stronger Nation report indicates that 40.4 percent of working-age Americans (ages 25-64) held high-quality two- or four-year degrees in 2014, the latest U.S. Census Bureau (American Community Survey) figures available, up slightly from 40.0 percent in 2013.

For the first time, this year’s Stronger Nation report also includes data on the attainment of postsecondary certificates. According to nationally representative survey data obtained by NORC at the University of Chicago, 4.9 percent of Americans hold high-quality postsecondary certificates. Certificates, which are often awarded by community and technical colleges, have significant value in the workforce and can provide the basis and gateway for further education.

Including the newly obtained NORC data, A Stronger Nation puts overall postsecondary attainment at 45.3 percent nationally.* The current rate of year-over-year increase is not sufficient to achieve the Foundation’s 2025 goal—that by 2025, 60 percent of Americans hold high-quality postsecondary degrees or certificates. In fact, the U.S. is projected to fall short of that number by 10.9 million people if the pace continues unchanged.

African American and Hispanic populations also continue to lag in attainment. While the attainment rate for whites is 49.7 percent, only 34.2 percent of African Americans have earned high-quality degrees or certificates and 26.0 percent of Hispanics have achieved education beyond high school. A Stronger Nation includes additional demographic and geographic breakdowns of current degree and certificate attainment rates at the state level and for select metro areas.

“The secret to individual and societal success is talent—the knowledge, skills, and abilities of our citizens—but right now, our nation lacks sufficient talent to meet the demands of the global job market,” said Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of Lumina Foundation. “Many of those who see education beyond high school as valuable and essential aren’t able to attain postsecondary credentials in today’s environment. Closing that gap, or increasing attainment equity is an economic imperative, and will require a shift in the way we think about higher education to include and better serve non-traditional learners.”

Data from a 2015 Gallup-Lumina Foundation Study of the American Public’s Opinion on Higher Education show that ideas about postsecondary education are in fact changing. While 69 percent of adults think of college in terms of “a campus where students live and attend classes with the goal of getting a four-year degree,” 54 percent now also think “students working to earn a certificate to use in the workforce” describes college education, up significantly from 40 percent a year ago.

According to the Gallup-Lumina Foundation study, 58 percent of Americans believe it is important to increase the proportion of the U.S. population with a degree or credential beyond high school. That belief is even stronger among minority populations, with 71 percent of Hispanics and 70 percent and African Americans expressing that view. Still, though overall higher education enrollment in the U.S. is 15.2 million, just slightly over 5 million, or roughly one-third of students enrolled in postsecondary programs are Hispanic, African American or Native American.

“Our nation will only thrive to the extent that we provide opportunities to the millions of Americans who need them. It’s up to all of us—policymakers, employers, educators, community members—to better support those not well served by the current system, including in ages 15-24, first-generation students, older working adults, and minority and low-income communities,” said Merisotis. “It must be a concerted effort, nationally and at the state level, to better support and create pathways to education beyond high school. Policy leaders in many states have set their own attainment goals already and are making clear progress, but the U.S. still has a long road ahead to closing attainment gaps for all Americans.

Additional Key Findings

  • The degree attainment rate among Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 is moving faster than the overall rate for working-age adults, reaching 42.3 percent in 2014 compared to 41.6 percent in 2013.
  • Of Americans ages 25-64 who have achieved postsecondary degrees, nearly 8.9 percent have earned an associate degree, 20 percent have earned a bachelor’s degree, and 11.5 percent have achieved graduate or professional degrees.
  • An estimated 26.3 percent of working-age Americans have earned a high school diploma or equivalent as of 2014, with 21.5 percent reporting some college experience, but no degree.
  • Among the Asian/Pacific Islander population, 60.6 percent have achieved at least an associate degree.
  • According to the Gallup-Lumina poll, 70 percent of Americans strongly agree or agree that having a degree or professional certificate is essential to getting a good job. Likewise, 71 percent agree that employers value the knowledge and skills a degree represents.
  • While a majority of Americans believe education beyond high school is available to anyone who needs it (59 percent), far fewer (24 percent) think it is affordable to all.

State Highlights

  • So far, 26 states have set rigorous and challenging individual attainment goals.
  • Most states committed to increasing attainment are taking concrete steps, such as implementing outcomes-based funding, improving developmental education, and making higher education more affordable to reach their goals.
  • The five states with the highest attainment rates are:
    1. Massachusetts—55.4%
    2. Colorado—54.2%
    3. Connecticut—53.2%
    4. Minnesota—52.9%
    5. Washington—51.6%
  • The five states with the lowest attainment rates are:
    1. West Virginia—32.6%
    2. Nevada—35.3%
    3. Mississippi—36.4%
    4. Alabama—36.7%
    5. Idaho—37.7%

Metro-Area Highlights

Of the 25 most populous metropolitan regions in the continental U.S., the top 10 metros ranked by degree attainment are:

  1. Washington D.C./Arlington-Alexandria, Va.—55.7%
  2. Boston-Cambridge-Newton, Mass.—55.1%
  3. San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, Calif.—54.0%
  4. Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, Minn.—52.0%
  5. Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, Wash.—49.5 %
  6. Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, Colo.—49.0 %
  7. New York, N.Y./Newark-Jersey City, N.J.—47.0%
  8. Pittsburgh, Pa.—46.1%
  9. Baltimore-Columbia-Towson, Md.—46.0%
  10. San Diego-Carlsbad, Calif.—45.3%

Of the 25 most populous metro regions in the U.S. the 10 with the lowest attainment rates are:

  1. Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif.—27.6%
  2. San Antonio-New Braunfels, Texas—35.3%
  3. Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, Texas—37.1%
  4. Phoenix-Mesa, Ariz.—38.3%
  5. Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, Fla.—39.5%
  6. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, Calif.—39.7%
  7. Detroit-Warren-Dearborn, Mich.—39.8 %
  8. Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, Texas—39.8%
  9. Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, Fla.—40.4%
  10. Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia, N.C.—42.6%

About Lumina Foundation:
Lumina Foundation is an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all. We envision a system that is easy to navigate, delivers fair results, and meets the nation’s need for talent through a broad range of credentials. Our goal is to prepare people for informed citizenship and for success in a global economy.

*This denotes attainment of associate degrees and higher, plus for 2014, it shows the estimated percentage of residents who have earned high-value postsecondary certificates. The 4.9 percentage was derived by polling a nationally representative sample of men and women, ages 25-64. The survey was conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago (, an independent research institution.

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