WASHINGTON—Degree attainment rates are on the rise nationally, but not at the pace needed for greater economy parity among minority groups.
This was one of the key issues that Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation for Education, stressed recently following the release of the report, “A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education: Visualizing Data To Help Us Achieve A Big Goal For College Attainment.”
Speaking at the National Press Club, Merisotis emphasized the need to increase degree attainment among low-income, first-generation, minority and adult student populations because they represent “the future of our country in its truest sense.”
“Our collective well-being rests on being able to do dramatically better for those groups, and our failure to do better for those groups will come at our collective peril,” he said.
The “Stronger Nation” report is the foundation’s fourth annual report that tracks progress toward the foundation’s Goal 2025, which is to have 60 percent of Americans hold “high-quality degrees, certificates or other postsecondary credentials” by the year 2025.
This year’s report contains metro level data on degree attainment rates for the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S.
Overall, progress made toward Goal 2025 since the Lumina Foundation first announced it in 2009 has been glacial. Merisotis said that should be seen as a cause for action, not indifference.
“It’s important to look at this data and not say, ‘This is more of what we’ve known from the past,’” Merisotis said. “It’s important to redouble our efforts and focus on increasing attainment.”
According to the report, in 2011, the percentage of Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 with a two- or four-year college degree was 38.7 percent—just a fraction of a percent higher than it was in 2010 when it stood at 38.3 percent.
“The U.S. attainment rate has been increasing slowly, but steadily,” the report stated. “In 2008, it was 37.9 percent; and in 2009, it was 38.1 percent.”
Based on the current pace, the level of degree attainment in the U.S. will be 48.1 percent by 2025, far short of the goal of 60 percent.
Significant variation persists among minority groups, the report showed.
For instance, the degree attainment rate among Whites and Asians is 43.3 and 59.13 percent, respectively. For Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans, the rates are 27.14, 19.31 and 23.07, respectively.
The “good news” is that enrollment is up, said Dewayne Matthews, Vice President for Policy and Strategy at Lumina.
The report states that, in 2012, 18.1 million students were enrolled in college, up from 17.6 million in 2009.
“We need to convert that enrollment into graduates,” said Matthews.
To add new energy to its Goal 2025 campaign, the report identifies 10 “targets” that the nation must hit by 2016. They include increasing the number of Hispanic and African-American students enrolled in college to 3.3 million and 3.25 million, respectively.
The figures currently stand at 2.5 million and 2.7 million, respectively.
Another goal is to increase the percentage of Americans who believe that increasing degree attainment is “necessary to the nation” from 43 percent to 55 percent. These numbers are based on the “Stronger Nation” report, which cites a recent Gallup poll.
“If you want to increase attainment, you have to increase the number of Americans who think it’s important to increase attainment,” said Matthews.
He added that Lumina has plans to build a “social movement” around increasing degree attainment.
Merisotis also outlined a number of actions that can increase degree attainment in the U.S. They include coming up with a “new model” to finance higher education, rethinking the way education is delivered, and revamping the way credentials are awarded and what they signify.
“The current system has been around for a century,” Merisotis said. “These credentials increasingly don’t make sense.”
Greater attention should be paid to postsecondary credentials that are short of associate’s and baccalaureate degrees, Merisotis said. Matthews suggested that credentials be more “stackable” so students can continue their higher education pursuits without having to start from square one.
“No one should be in an educational cul-de-sac where the only way they can make progress is [to go] back out and start over,” Matthews said.
Jamaal Abdul-Alim is a 2013-14 Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University.