Number of U.S. Degree Holders Is Rising, Slowly, Toward Lumina's 'Big Goal'

March 26, 2012

Sixty percent of the American population should hold a college credential by 2025: That's the Lumina Foundation for Education's "Big Goal," and according to a report it released on Monday, progress has been incremental.

In 2010, the report says, 38.3 percent of adults age 25 to 64 had earned either a two- or four-year degree. That's up, but just modestly, from 38.1 percent in 2009 and 37.9 percent in 2008.

The somewhat higher college-attainment rates of young adults, those age 25 to 34, have also increased slightly in the past few years, according to the report, which uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The rate was 39.3 percent in 2010, compared to 39.0 percent in 2009 and 37.8 percent in 2008.

The report, "A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education," is the latest one by Lumina to examine the progress of its Big Goal project, which was introduced in 2009, the same year President Obama set a goal that by 2020, the United States would "once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world," a feat that would require more than half of adults to hold a degree.

If the nation continues to churn out degree holders at its existing rate, by 2025 only 47 percent of adults, not Lumina's aspirational 60 percent, will have earned at least a two-year college degree, the report says.


"The trend is encouraging, but the pace of attainment must increase if we are to reach the goal," Jamie P. Merisotis, Lumina's president, said in an interview.

Recent talk of a higher-education bubble and questions about the value of college trouble Mr. Merisotis. The very students whose college-attainment rates need to increase—low-income students and those who are the first in their families to attend college—may be especially vulnerable to such arguments, he said.

"This narrow analysis about the worth of college is wrong," Mr. Merisotis said. "Research shows that your chances of being poor are dramatically higher if you don't go to college."

A growing number of nonprofit organizations, higher-education institutions and associations, and state legislatures have joined the college-completion agenda since Lumina unveiled its Big Goal project. Among them is a new nonprofit group, Complete College America, which works with states to increase college access and graduation rates, particularly for underrepresented students.

The U.S. population is so large that significant increases are hard to come by, said Stan Jones, the group's president. "Even small percentages mean a lot of additional degrees."

Reaching the Goal

In a majority of states, the college-attainment rate was either stable or had increased slightly in the two-year period covered by the report. There were, however, a few notable exceptions, such as Montana, which saw its rate increase more rapidly than most other states'.

The number of adults in Montana age 25 to 64 with at least an associate degree rose to 40.0 percent in 2010, from 37.7 percent in 2008. If that rate of increase continues, by 2025 almost 50 percent of adults in Montana will hold a postsecondary degree. "To reach 60 percent," the report says, "Montana will need to add nearly 52,000 degrees to that total."

The number of degree holders living in the "nation's 100 largest populated metropolitan areas" was examined by Lumina for the first time this year. The region around Washington, D.C., landed on top, with 54.4 percent of adults holding at least an associate degree in 2010. Rounding out the top three were metropolitan Boston (54.0 percent) and the San Francisco and Oakland region (52.9 percent).

The foundation decided to include local rates in its report because more cities and states are starting to pay attention to college attainment, Mr. Merisotis said.

"It's not something that has gotten public attention before," he said. "We are happy about all the goal-setting that is going on."

The report offers several recommendations for the nation to reach Lumina's goal. They include helping more high-school graduates go to college, encouraging more adults to enroll in or return to college, and starting to count in the attainment group adults who hold post-high-school certificates, especially those that offer an avenue to further education.

Also, awarding degrees for credits earned through prior-learning assessment would be an additional way to spur progress toward the goal, the report says. If the nation follows Lumina's suggestions, it says, the number of degree holders could swell by an additional 26.3 million by 2025, resulting in a 62-percent college-attainment rate.

The country has already done a good job of enrolling students, said Mr. Jones, of Complete College America: Now the focus needs to be on graduation. "While the country is making progress," he said, "there is still more work to be done."