The new data are clear: More Americans are learning and training beyond high school to pave powerful paths to well-paid jobs. But progress amid challenges is slow, leaving too many adults without college degrees or other credentials to struggle in their careers and lives.

The dire costs of ending formal education at high school can last a lifetime and impede opportunity from one generation to the next. To combat this, Lumina Foundation in 2008 set an ambitious goal for the nation: By 2025, 60 percent of working-age adults would earn a college degree, certificate, industry-recognized certification, or other valuable credentials. In the 15 years since, 48 states set education attainment goals that also tackle persistent racial gaps, with help from partners at statehouses to college campuses to boardrooms.

So, how are we doing? New federal data from 2021, reported on Lumina’s Stronger Nation website, show solid progress, with the largest two-year gain since we began tracking these numbers. Nearly 54 percent (53.7%) of working-age adults have earned college degrees or other credentials, up from 51.9 percent in 2019. Several states including Massachusetts, Utah, Colorado, and Minnesota moved faster, topping the 60 percent goal for adults ages 25 to 64. The District of Columbia has the highest attainment rate, at 72.4 percent.

It’s encouraging that the nation’s attainment rate has climbed from 37.9 percent in 2008 and has grown every year, even during the pandemic and economic crises. That’s thanks to hard work, strong partnerships, and better measurement. But racial disparities persist in attainment between Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Alaska Native adults and their white and Asian American peers. Ensuring plentiful opportunities and equitable outcomes for everyone who wants to learn is the only way to achieve lasting results.

Our Stronger Nation site—an interactive, transparent, easy-to-navigate tool available to everyone—holds us accountable by tracking progress, not just for the nation, but also at the state, county, and metro levels. Crucially, that information is disaggregated by race, ethnicity, age, and credential type. This combination helps to paint a nuanced, data-rich portrait of areas of both promise and challenge.

Speed it up

These new data reinforce our urgent need to speed up progress, especially knowing that tomorrow’s students – our future leaders – will be even more racially, socially, and generationally diverse. To meet their needs in a fast-changing labor market, educators will have to rethink, reinvent, and adapt their policies and practices. Fueled by the pandemic, we’ll need broader opportunities for affordable remote and hybrid learning.

Seeing the gaps and the opportunities for continued progress helps us to sharply focus our efforts as we move forward. 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.

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.

Let’s use these latest data to inform and inspire fresh ideas and bold innovations on behalf of today’s learners and generations to come. Only then will we create a truly stronger nation.

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‘Stronger Nation’ data show attainment gains, gaps

National trends

  • The nation’s educational attainment rate after high school in 2021 increased to 53.7 percent. This means that nearly 54 percent of working-age adults – ages 25 to 64 – earned college degrees or other credentials beyond a high school diploma that could lead to further education, higher pay, and better jobs.
  • The nation’s attainment rate is the sum of the degree attainment rate (45.7 percent) and the attainment rate of high-value, short-term credentials (8 percent). Short-term credentials include college-level certificates (4.3 percent) and industry-recognized certifications (3.7 percent).
  • The increase from 51.9 percent in 2019 to 53.7 percent in 2021, the most recent data available, is the most significant two-year gain since Lumina Foundation began compiling this report in 2009.

How the states are doing

  • States with the most significant increases in attainment rates – people with college degrees or high-quality short-term credentials – among adults ages 25 to 64 include Indiana, Idaho, Mississippi, South Dakota, Utah, and Vermont. States with the highest attainment rates for adults 25 to 64 include Massachusetts (62.1 percent), Utah (61.1 percent), Colorado (60.5 percent), and Minnesota (60.2 percent). The District of Columbia’s rate is the highest, at 72.4 percent.
  • Over the past two years, every state, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, achieved gains in degree attainment – that is, people with associate degrees or higher. States with the highest degree attainment increases from 2019 to 2021 include Arizona, Maine, New Mexico, Vermont, and West Virginia. The District of Columbia also had similar gains.

Gaps persist for students of color

  • Attainment among adults ages 25 to 64 is increasing across all races and ethnicities. In 2021, the nation experienced the most significant increase by almost 2½ percentage points among Hispanics and Latinos. Meanwhile, Black Americans experienced a nearly 2-point increase. Nonetheless, significant disparities persist. The national attainment rate for college degrees is 45.7 percent. But the percentage of Black adults with college degrees is 34.2 percent. And only 27.8 percent of Hispanic and Latino adults hold degrees, with Native Americans at 25.4 percent.

What about younger adults?

  • The nation’s attainment rate among younger adults ages 25 to 34, foreshadowing future trends, is 55.9 percent – representing a 2-point increase over two years. States with the highest overall attainment rates among younger adults include Massachusetts (68.7 percent), New Jersey (64.5 percent), Minnesota (63.3 percent), and New York (62.8 percent). District of Columbia has the highest, at 80.7 percent.

Progress over 15 years

  • Educational attainment after high school has steadily increased nationally. The share of working-age Americans with credentials of value beyond a high school diploma has grown every year since Lumina began tracking progress. In 2008, degree attainment was 37.9 percent, and today it is 53.7 percent.
  • State-level attainment rates after high school are increasing. With the addition of certifications, 39 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico now have attainment rates for working-age adults higher than 50 percent. All states are above 40 percent. (In 2008, no state had a degree-attainment rate of 50 percent or greater, and 32 states had rates of under 40 percent.)

[Editor’s Note: Data for A Stronger Nation come from two sources. We use the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) for degree attainment. The ACS does not include attainment values for short-term credentials (high-value certificates and certifications). Labor market experts derive these data at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.]  

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