College & Workforce Readiness

College Attainment Rate Inches Upward, But Not Enough to Meet 2025 Goal

By Catherine Gewertz — April 11, 2016 2 min read
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About 45 percent of the working-age adults in the United States have earned college degrees or postsecondary certificates, the Lumina Foundation reported Monday, a figure that doesn’t bode well for meeting the philanthropy’s national goal of 60 percent by 2025.

In the latest annual report in its series, “A Stronger Nation,” the Lumina Foundation details the 2014 national landscape of postsecondary attainment, and terms the year’s progress “slow and steady.” It finds modest increases among all racial and ethnic groups in the earning of associate degrees or higher, but black and Latino adults still lag behind whites and Asians. Overall, 45.3 percent of U.S. adults 25 to 64 years old have earned certificates or college degrees, according to the U.S. Census data cited by Lumina.

Last year’s report put college attainment at 40 percent. But that doesn’t mean attainment has risen 5.3 percentage points in one year.

This year, Lumina included postsecondary certificates in its total, and that increased the attainment figure. It used census data for its college degree total (40.4 percent), and a survey-based estimate by the National Opinion Research Center, at the University of Chicago, for the proportion of Americans who hold postsecondary certificates (4.9 percent). Excluding NORC’s figure from this year’s report, college attainment—associate and bachelor’s degrees—has risen only .4 percent.

Lumina included the certificates data this year because it was the first time the foundation felt it had a reliable estimate.

In 2009, Lumina set a goal that 60 percent of U.S. adults would attain postsecondary credentials or college degrees by 2025. President Barack Obama’s college-attainment goal, which also targets 2025, focuses on college degrees, even though he has repeatedly touted the value of certificates that lead to good-paying jobs.

Lumina President Jamie Merisotis noted in the report that only 37.9 percent of adults 25 to 64 had associate degrees or higher in 2008, the year examined in the foundation’s first “A Stronger Nation” report. “This is real progress,” he writes. “The increase in the attainment rate since 2008 represents more than 4.2 million additional Americans with college degrees.”

But the rate of improvement is still not enough to reach the foundation’s 2025 goal, even with postsecondary certificates factored into the equation, he said.

In its 218-page report, Lumina details postsecondary attainment state by state, and analyzes the greatest concentrations of higher education by metropolitan region. There’s a 16-page national summary version of the report, too.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.