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Image credit – Devin Castles

More Americans than ever are completing college, but blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans and men are falling behind.

A new study by the Lumina Foundation (using the most recent data available from 2011) finds that 38.7% of working-age Americans (ages 25-64) now have a post-secondary degree, up .4% from 2010. But among blacks, Hispanics and men, the rates of educational attainment are much lower. While 59.1% of Asians and 43.3% of whites have a post-secondary degree, only 27.1% of blacks and 19.3% of Hispanics do.

There is also a significant gender gap, with 45% of working-age women holding a two- to four-year degree, compared to just 40% of men. This disparity is even greater among young adults ages 25-29, where 47% of women have a degree, compared to 37% of men, indicating this gap may be worsening.

Currently, 30% of working-age adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher, 8.5% have an associate’s degree, and an estimated 5% have a post-secondary certificate. The jobs numbers on post-secondarycertificates are harder to measure, but the earning potential for those with a bachelor’s degree is almost 40% higher than those with an associate’s degree, and the unemployment rate is almost 2% lower.

The increase in college attainment is good news for American workers. Despite the attention paid to the increasing costs of college education, it is still a worthwhile investment. As the College Guide reported last week, even college drop-outs make more money than people who never went to college at all. Better educated workers is also good news for American companies, who are demanding ever greater levels of skill from their employees. Even in manufacturing, brains now rule over brawn. The Manufacturing Institute’s 2011 Skills Gap Report, for example, says that increasingly complex manufacturing technology demands highly skilled workers who are conversant with computers, engineering and other technical fields. The Lumina report predicts that as many as 65% of US jobs will require some form of post-secondary education by 2020.

While ensuring that more students continue to pursue post-secondary credentials is a worthy goal, it of course shouldn’t come at the expense of the quality of the education students are receiving. The rise in online teaching and for-profit higher education may help raise graduation rates without providing students with a better and more useful education.

But of even greater concern are the right policies for closing the racial and gender gaps in college achievement that the Lumina report spotlights. If a college education is increasingly defining who the “haves” and “have-nots” are in America, it’s also our obligation as a nation to ensure that everyone has a fair shot at success.

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Devin Castles is an intern at the Washington Monthly.