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Universal Postsecondary Education

This week, Lumina Foundation released its Strategic Plan for 2017 to 2020. The plan outlines a vision for reaching the Foundation’s goal that 60 percent of Americans hold high-quality postsecondary credentials by 2025 by building an equitable universal postsecondary learning system for the United States.

What does universal postsecondary education mean and what would it take to make it a national reality? An answer comes from the experience of making secondary education universal. This started about a century ago, as states and communities started to come to grips with the shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy. Before then, most Americans only attended elementary school, which was thought to be sufficient for the way most Americans lived. States and communities in the Northeast that first experienced the growth of the industrial economy realized that the education level of their residents needed to be higher and moved to make secondary education widely available. The high school movement quickly spread west, and by the 1940s, completing high school became an expectation of all students.

While the fourth industrial revolution is still on the horizon, most Americans don’t appreciate the scale of the economic transformation that has already occurred in the United States (and other post-industrial economies) since the Great Recession. According to data analyzed by the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce, the U.S. economy shed 7.3 million net jobs in the recession—5.6 million for workers with a high school diploma or less and 1.7 million requiring some college education but not a bachelor’s degree. The number of jobs for Americans with a bachelor’s degree actually increased by 187,000 during the recession. Since the recovery began in 2011, the U.S. economy has added 11.5 million net new jobs for workers with postsecondary education but only 80,000 for those with a high school diploma or less. The case today for making completion of some level of postsecondary education universal is as strong as the case for universal high school was in the early 20th century.

We should remember that universal high school became a reality thanks to a movement that began and spread at the community level, was eventually codified by states, and was finally recognized in federal policy. It was very much a grassroots movement and not led by the federal government—or national foundations, for that matter. A similar movement may be underway now in the form of states setting goals to dramatically increase the proportion of their populations with education beyond high school. At least 30 states have set ambitious goals of increasing attainment, and many are following up by adopting policies that encourage more students to enter and complete some level of postsecondary education. Other grassroots efforts are calling for universal postsecondary education as the only way to assure opportunity for millions of Americans being left out or left behind in today’s economy.

When much of the federal and national discussion is focused solely on the price of college, it’s important to understand that universal postsecondary education doesn’t necessarily have to be free—and making it free doesn’t make it universal. In many ways, the focus on cost and debt obscures the real issue, which is that quality education beyond high school is simply not available to millions of Americans. Bringing postsecondary education within reach of all Americans—making it universal—is an idea whose time has come.

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