I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Fresh lenses on educational attainment and the impact of “stranded credits.”

For a few more weeks, I’ll continue to intersperse annotated reading lists with reported newsletters to catch all of us up on the latest developments and thinking about key issues. Here, I highlight improvements in a crucial resource for tracking the nation’s uneven progress on educational-attainment goals and, in the same vein, new insights into which students are most affected by “stranded” credits because of debts to their colleges.

Since 2009, the Lumina Foundation’s A Stronger Nation site has been the go-to source for tracking attainment levels across the country — and progress toward the goal that 60 percent of Americans have a degree or credential of value. Now the foundation has added new features to show gaps based on race and ethnicity, plus other tools to home in on adults ages 25 to 34.

The site now shows that attainment is rising faster among younger people: Fifty-four percent of those ages 24 to 34 had a degree or a credential as of 2019, compared with 52 percent of those ages 25 to 64. “That’s a really good indicator of where the nation is headed,” Lumina’s Courtney Brown said in a recent webinar. (In 2009, overall attainment was about 38 percent; some of the increases since then are because Lumina started including nondegree credentials in its counts in 2013.)

The new tools are useful even as they highlight some disheartening findings. Most notably: Even among the younger age group, stark gaps in attainment by race and ethnicity persist, with Black, Hispanic, and Native American and Alaska Native people still trailing considerably their white and Asian American and Pacific Islander peers.

Thanks to federal Covid-19 assistance funds, many colleges have been wiping out some of the debt students owe them, allowing the students to remain enrolled or not to have to deal with a hold on their transcripts if they want to transfer. But most of that relief applies only to debt incurred during the pandemic. And once the money runs out, the larger issue of unpaid debts causing “stranded credits” for some 6.6 million students will still be a problem for students and institutions. I’ve been following how the nonprofit consultancy Ithaka S+R is working to address this $15-billion conundrum. Its latest report, “Stranded Credits: A Matter of Equity,” documents the human costs of withholding transcripts for unpaid debts, highlighting how stranded credits “are both a cause and symptom of inequity in higher education.” As you might guess, the impact is most significant for the very students who are already facing the most financial precarity.

While I’m still eager to see the experimental solutions Ithaka S+R has promised to roll out, the suggestions in this report — including a call for state education officials and legislators to develop repayment options that could reduce institutions’ reliance on transcript holds — offer some good starting points. For more on the topic, like details on how some states (California, Washington) have already taken action, read or listen to this dispatch (from April) by GBH News and The Hechinger Report.

Quote of the week.

“I bet if U.S. News started including vaccination rates in their ranking, campuses would start requiring it.🙃
—Laila McCloud, assistant professor in the college-student-personnel program at Western Illinois University, in a post on Twitter last month reflecting on colleges’ debates over requiring Covid-19 vaccines.

Ask a student (or three).

Join The Chronicle today at 2 p.m. Eastern time to hear from a panel of experts — including students — about what opportunities and support they need most this semester. Co-hosted by Sara Lipka, my editor (!), and Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, the discussion will focus on what elements of “normal” campus life students want, what changes they hope to see, and how colleges can seek students’ input to guide planning. Sign up here to tune in live or watch later on demand.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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