Despite Some Gaps, College Attainment Rates Are Rising

Americans are better-educated than ever.

A new report by the Lumina Foundation finds that 45.3% of Americans held a post-secondary credential in 2014, compared to 37.9% in 2008. This includes 40.4% of working-age Americans (ages 25 to 64) holding two-year and four-year college degrees, as well as a growing share of Americans (4.9%) holding high-quality post-secondary certificates in a particular field.

According to Lumina, the rise in attainment rates between 2008 and 2014 means that 4.2 million more Americans have attained some sort of postsecondary credential.

The report finds that educational attainment has been increasing across the board for different groups, although there’s also been little progress in closing disparities between minorities and whites. For example, while the rate of degree attainment rose for African-Americans from 27.6% in 2012 to 28.7% in 2014, it’s still significantly below the rate of attainment for whites, which also grew – from 43.9% to 45.1% over the same period.

Source: Lumina Foundation

The report also finds stark geographic disparities across the country. Among the nation’s 25 largest metropolitan areas, Washington, D.C. ranks as the most educated, with the share of college-educated Americans at a whopping 55.7%. In contrast, the share of college-educated adults in Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, California, which ranked last among major metro areas by education level, was 27.6%.

Source: Lumina Foundation

Despite the generally good news, the Lumina Foundation also warns that the pace of degree attainment still isn’t fast enough for the nation to reach what the foundation says is its stated goal: for 60 percent of Americans to hold a post-secondary credential by 2025. Even if current trends continue, the foundation says, the nation will still be 10.9 million graduates short of attaining this milestone. According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, 63 percent of jobs created by 2018 will require some sort of postsecondary education.

For the majority of Americans to become college-educated, policymakers will need more strategies to reach older, nontraditional and underserved students – in addition to ensuring that more high school students enroll in college and are better prepared for it. For example, Lumina says, there are as many as 27 million Americans between the ages of 25 and 54 who attended college but never received their degrees. Many of these Americans could be encouraged to complete their educations or to earn a certification based on their combined school and work experience. Among the more innovative efforts around the country gaining interest is the concept of “stackable” credentials – skills-based credentials that are standardized, unique to particular fields and industries, and that are as marketable for workers as a traditional college degree.

Innovations like these could help ensure that the upward trajectory of American higher education continues.