College-Attainment Rate Inches Up, but Not Fast Enough for Lumina

April 09, 2015

With just 10 years to go until 2025 — the point at which the Lumina Foundation wants Americans to have a 60-percent college-attainment rate — there is still a gap of 20 percentage points between the goal and reality.

Forty percent of U.S. residents between the ages of 25 and 64 had at least an associate degree in 2013, according to the latest edition of an annual report that the foundation released on Thursday. That figure represents a 0.6-percentage point increase in the college attainment rate from the previous year.

The latest gain means that in six years, the attainment rate has inched up just 2.1 percentage points.

Jamie P. Merisotis, Lumina’s president, said that movement represents an increase of more than 2.8 million degrees, and that’s "real progress."

Still, the approaching deadline underscores a sense of urgency: "We won’t meet our need for talent unless we accelerate," Mr. Merisotis said. He added that colleges and states have made progress. "We moved the needle further, but it’s simply not fast enough to achieve the goal."

The foundation’s 60-percent target is in line with President Obama’s goal, announced in 2009, for the United States to lead the world in college completion by 2020. But with six years to go, most observers believe Mr. Obama’s goal faces the same remote odds as Lumina’s.

But Mr. Merisotis said the foundation still believes the country can hit 60-percent attainment by 2025. The key, he said, is understanding where the gaps are.

If the United States continues at its current rate of college degree production, the country will reach an attainment rate of 48.7 percent by 2025, according to the report.

Even that prediction might be an optimistic one, the report acknowledges, considering declines in enrollment, persistence, and completion rates. But in order to close the remaining gap, the country must increase those rates among all demographics. Also, high-quality postsecondary credentials that are not currently included in the U.S. Census data on degrees must be counted, the report says.

Closing Attainment Gaps

As the job market and the economy improved, college enrollment was down by 600,000 students in 2014 from the previous year, according to the report — notably among adult students and African-American and Native-American students.

Student persistence and completion rates were also down across the board.

And while the degree-attainment rates for African-American, Native-American, and Hispanic students all increased in 2013, the attainment gaps were still significant. Since the nonwhite population is growing quickly in the United States, these gaps could be the most serious threat to reaching the 60-percent goal, the report says.

"Equity is such an important, cross-cutting issue in all of the things that need to be done," Mr. Merisotis said. "We’re at a time in our history when we need to make clear that Latino, African-American, Native-American attainment is about our collective well-being in the country — not simply a matter of social justice for those groups."

Lumina is also focusing on Americans who have attended college but did not complete their degrees. According to the report, 36.2 million Americans fit into this category.

Another significant factor to reaching Lumina’s goal will be the inclusion of nondegree postsecondary certificates and credentials.

As early as next year, the U.S. Census is expected to begin reporting data on certificates. The report says that having that annual data should lead to an increase of at least 5 percent in the attainment rate.