The Urgency of Increasing Higher Education Attainment in America

04/09/2015 11:55 am ET | Updated Jun 09, 2015

As postsecondary skills have become essential to success for millions of Americans, few would argue that our nation has all of the talent it needs to prosper. New data reveal that our country risks falling behind in a global race -- the competition for innovation and, above all else, talent -- unless actions are taken now to significantly increase postsecondary attainment.

Projections by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce show that more than 65 percent of U.S. jobs will require some form of postsecondary education by the end of this decade. And yet, according to Lumina Foundation's just-released annual Stronger Nation report on postsecondary attainment rates across America, only 40 percent of working-age adults (ages 25-64) now hold at least a two-year degree.

Results from the last five years show that progress on educational attainment has been real-- between 2008 and 2013, the percentage of Americans with at least a two-year degree grew by 2.1 percentage points, representing more than 2.8 million more degrees.

This progress reflects both increasing demand for postsecondary credentials and the efforts of higher education institutions, policymakers and many others to respond to that demand. And yet we must do significantly better if we intend to grow our economy, meet the labor needs of our employers, strengthen our democracy and provide opportunity to individuals across the country.

It's clear that the only way to meet our growing need for talent is to significantly increase education attainment beyond high school. Specifically, we need to reach Goal 2025 - an ambitious objective for 60 percent of all Americans to have a high-quality postsecondary degree, certificate or other credential by the year 2025. And time is of the essence.

A new urgency is needed for the sake of all Americans, not just those born into certain families or neighborhoods or income brackets. Data from the Stronger Nation report show persistent and widening degree attainment gaps linked to race and ethnicity.

Asian adults lead all races with 60.0 percent degree attainment; whites follow at 44.5 percent; African Americans rank a distant third at 28.1 percent; Native Americans are at 23.9 percent, and Hispanics rank fifth at 20.3 percent.

Adding to the challenge of increasing attainment is the fact that enrollment was down last year --perhaps not surprising given historic patterns following a recession, but troubling nonetheless given the urgency of achieving the 60 percent goal.

Policymakers, employers, civic champions, education leaders and all who have a stake in the success of the American student need to join forces to really get the attainment needle moving in America. Here are the areas where action is most needed:

Increasing persistence and completion. Far too many students drop out of college without completing a degree, and states and institutions need to follow the lead of states like Tennessee by implementing a comprehensive approach to increasing completion. Making college affordable for all Americans who need it should be an urgent national priority, and will require that we rethink many of our assumptions about how much college costs and how we pay for it. We also must work on creating better pathways to guide students successfully through postsecondary education systems.

Targeting adults with "some college, no degree." As a result of attrition rates, an astounding 36.2 million Americans -- nearly 22 percent of the working-age population between the ages of 25 and 64 -- have attended college but did not obtain a degree. All states should follow the lead of states like Georgia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky to re-engage this critical group. If just 15 percent of these "some college, no degree" adults complete, that would result in nearly 5.5 million more Americans with degrees.

Recognizing all forms of learning. For now, attainment numbers focus on Americans with degrees. But as workforce demands shift, many employers see tremendous value in hiring candidates who hold the high-quality certificates, certifications and other credentials that lead to employment and further education. It's estimated that 7.8 million Americans fall into this category. We believe that we should find ways to recognize the learning that these high-quality postsecondary credentials represent and create stronger pathways from them to degrees. Current data don't allow us to do that, but we are optimistic that improvements in data systems will soon make this possible.

For many decades, education has proven to be this nation's single most powerful engine of individual progress and upward mobility. And in today's rapidly changing workplace, that's truer than ever.

As a nation, we must work to assure not just individual opportunity but national security and prosperity as well. Since postsecondary attainment is now the key to both, social justice also requires that we make substantial progress in expanding postsecondary opportunity and closing gaps in attainment. We have 10 years to reach Goal 2025. The clock is ticking.