Our searchable data tool just got a “facelift.” It now offers fresh insights on where we’re making the most progress with post-high school education and training – and where we’re falling short

In one rural county in Texas, only 4% of people have a degree or credential beyond high school. Only 11% of American Indians or Alaska Natives in Alaska have an associate degree or higher – and that percentage hasn’t budged in years. And while 72% of Asians ages 25-34 earned higher education credentials, only 20% of Burmese adults in that age range have.

When it comes to the learning and skills required to succeed in today’s economy, we continue to see stubborn gaps in attainment for Black people, Hispanics, Native Americans, Alaska natives and poor rural Americans. In a world where virtually all good jobs require education beyond high school, these new data from A Stronger Nation, Lumina Foundation’s signature report on educational attainment, highlight an urgent challenge that our country must continue to forcefully address.

Lumina Vice President Courtney Brown gives an overview of the 2021 refresh of the Stronger Nation tool.

Today our Stronger Nation data tool gets a facelift. Using data culled from the most recent U.S. Census, the newly revamped tool examines the 25- to 34-year-old age group – a leading trend in assessing progress or lack of it for our nation’s learners. Stronger Nation now also offers views of 10-year trends, more easily accessible racial and ethnic disaggregation, and the ability to download underlying data and reports. And this is new, too: The tool offers scenarios based on actions taken – or delayed.

These new data arrive at a crucial moment for America, as 65% of today’s jobs require a degree or at least some college – with dire consequences for those lacking it. We saw this in stark terms in the past year as COVID-19 disproportionately affected less-skilled workers, including people of color. Unless we change the math that is so evident in these data – and bring people in from the sidelines who have been left out – we’ll continue to see entire communities struggle and our country lose ground to our global competitors.

As the importance of education after high school became more evident, Lumina embraced a national goal that by 2025, 60 percent of working-age adults will have a college degree, certificate, industry-recognized certification, or other credential of value. Forty-six states joined the effort, setting similar goals. Stronger Nation holds us accountable by tracking our progress; it provides data at national, state, county, and metro levels and disaggregates it by race/ethnicity, age, and credential type. In the past year alone, the tool’s timely, user-friendly data was viewed 14,000 times.

Progress made, but it’s not equitable

The newest data shows that our nation is making steady progress. Since 2009, attainment in the U.S. has expanded from 38.1% to 51.95% – a 13.8 percentage point increase. This increase holds true across all races/ethnicities. A few states have reached their attainment goals or are very close. But when we look more closely at the data, it’s clear that the results are not equitable:

  • While 65% of Asian and Pacific Islanders have a degree or credential and 49% of White Americans do, the numbers are much lower for other races and ethnicities: 32% of Black Americans, 26% of Hispanics, and 25% of American Indians and Alaska Natives ages 25-64 hold an associate degree or higher diploma. Those persistent and troubling gaps are also found in the younger age range of 25-34.
  • Only 11% of American Indians or Alaska Natives in the state of Alaska have an associate degree or higher – a number that hasn’t changed in years due in part to systemic failures and poverty rates.
  • Rural populations are struggling, too: in tiny Kenedy County, Texas – where cattle outnumber the people – only 4.2% have attained a credential beyond high school.

These new data are essential because if we don’t measure our progress, we can’t improve. Clearly seeing the gaps enables us to best focus our efforts. Our goal is this: Let’s ensure that everyone, regardless of the color of their skin, their geography, or their economic situation, has an opportunity to earn a credential. And let’s ensure that, in the future, we no longer see like we do today metro areas with only a 23% attainment rate, decreases in Black attainment across multiple states, or such huge discrepancies in the Asian population where some subgroups have attainment that exceeds 88% while others struggle to reach 20%.

With fresh insights, it’s time to act

To meet the fast-changing needs of learners and labor markets, higher education will have to rethink, reinvent and adapt its policies and practices. And we must get ready for tomorrow’s students – our future leaders – who will be even more racially, socially, and generationally diverse.

We will need sustained, equity-minded, broad-based, proactive efforts. We will need tightly coordinated education, economic development, and workforce policies as waves of people seek better lives through timely, accessible, affordable learning.

With fresh insights from these new data, it’s up to us to help the people behind the numbers — our families, neighbors, co-workers, and fellow citizens — as we ensure that all Americans have equal opportunities to learn, grow and contribute their talents. Only then will we create a truly stronger nation.

Courtney Brown, Ph.D., is vice president of impact and planning at Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation that works for racial equity and justice as it helps all Americans learn beyond high school. Brown oversees Lumina’s strategic planning, impact, and effectiveness, and also leads international engagement.

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