The call for millions more U.S. adults with labor market credentials sparked action.

In 2008, when Lumina Foundation committed to at least 60 percent of U.S. adults earning college degrees and other credentials by 2025, we did something that set us apart from most national funders:

We set a big, ambitious goal and then went to work. And we did so in close partnership with state and local officials, educators, industry leaders, and countless others.

New federal data from 2021 released today in A Stronger Nation show promising progress. Nearly 54 percent of adults hold college degrees, certificates, industry certifications, or other credentials.

While the effects of falling enrollment have not yet appeared, we are hopeful for more movement toward 60 percent by 2025. Regardless of whether we meet the goal within two years, the buy-in to Stronger Nation and the policies and investments it has inspired across the country contributed to an increase in the proportion of adults with education and training after high school.

The percentage of U.S. adults with formal, recognized quality education or training after high school increased from 37.9 percent in 2008 to 53.8 percent by 2021.

This first-of-its-kind effort—with like-minded partners—drew dedicated support for higher learning that meets the needs of shifting student demographics and pays social dividends.

People working in isolation to improve student outcomes were initially skeptical. Over time, we were able to unite business, government, higher education, nonprofits, and local leaders around the goal of 60 percent of working-age adults with valuable credentials beyond high school.

The goal shifted people’s thinking when higher education’s emphasis had been on broadening college access and meeting enrollment targets. There was often little attention to whether people were completing their academic programs.

That’s why nearly 40 million adults today have been to college without finishing. Colleges are not evolving quickly enough.

That’s also why, for Lumina, 2025 has always been a through point, not an endpoint.

We will stay committed to achieving 60 percent beyond 2025. And we’ll sharpen efforts to address barriers to learning that mainly harm people who are Black, Hispanic, Latino, and Native American. Policies, practices, and beliefs— rooted in history and still affecting people—keep many people from obtaining the education and skills they need.

Steady gains amid turmoil

Between 2008 and today, the United States has dealt with monumental challenges—from the Great Recession to the Great Resignation. The country has elected four vastly different presidents, experienced a racial reckoning, and endured a global pandemic.

We have become increasingly polarized culturally, politically, and socially. This divisiveness shows up in arguments about the rising price of college and the value of a bachelor’s degree.

People are concerned about their economic prospects. Complexity abounds. And education has never been more essential. For the nation’s good, we must refute unfounded critiques that undermine higher education—even as we seek the reinvention of college.

Sixty percent was never an arbitrary goal. We firmly grounded it in projections about labor market demand. It was not magical, either. We might miss the timing, but that is the nature of stretch goals with specific deadlines colliding with unforeseen factors.

Nonetheless, the proportion of adults with recognized, formal quality education or training after high school went from 37.9 percent in 2008 to 53.8 percent by 2021.

This nearly 16-point increase came from two sources—an increase in people with degrees and a better ability to recognize college certificates and industry-certification programs that can lead to more education or training and jobs with higher wages.

The goal’s contribution

When we reach the 2025 deadline, we can count significantly more adults with degrees and other credentials among the successes. Many of them are Black and brown adults who have long experienced inadequate access to education. These credentials represent the knowledge and skills that support hopes, dreams, and aspirations and can be the basis for economic mobility and brighter futures.

National progress also has yielded efforts that will survive beyond 2025. New organizations aiding students exist today because of a shared commitment to achieving the goal.

Forty-eight states have set goals that address racial disparities in post-high school offerings—a result of work with partners at statehouses, community colleges, universities, and advocacy organizations.

Crucially, who gets access to education after high school, what quality learning looks like in terms of economic, individual, and social returns, and why we should support students to the finish line have received attention and energy from which there is no turning back.

That’s a silver lining because no matter where people come from, what they look like, or how much money their families have, they should have access to the information and resources they need to learn, grow, and thrive. We believe this today more than ever.

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