Improving the higher education attainment rate

Lumina Foundation

“The knowledge economy requires Americans to develop the skills that are demanded in a globally competitive environment. As a result, increasing higher education attainment is critical to the U.S. economy. The implications of this shift toward a more highly skilled workforce cannot be overstated. For generations, the American economy created large numbers of middle class jobs that did not require high levels of skill or knowledge. Because of global competition, these jobs are rapidly disappearing. It is not that low-skill jobs do not exist in the U.S.; it is that the Americans who hold them are not likely to enter or remain in the middle class. They are not likely to have access to quality health care, save for retirement or assure their children access to higher education. In short, completing some form of higher education is now critical for reaching the middle-class.

Lumina’s big goal is based on the reality that our country faces social and economic opportunities that can best be addressed by educating many more people beyond high school. As a nation, this means we must continue to focus on approaches that make higher education more accessible and affordable for all. We also must ensure that all students who come to college graduate with meaningful, high-quality degrees and credentials that enable them to contribute to the workforce, improve society and provide for themselves and their families. Current economic conditions have only made this priority more clear and more urgent, both for short-term economic recovery and long-term economic success.

The American public has rapidly come to this same conclusion. Americans have always valued higher education and been aware that it delivers significant economic and social benefits. But they never really believed it was a necessity – until now. Fifty-five percent of Americans now believe that obtaining a college degree is the only way to succeed. As recently as 2000, only 30 percent of Americans believed that. Unfortunately, many in the education and policy worlds fail to understand what their constituencies see very clearly. Too often we continue to hear debates about who is or isn’t “college material.”

Evidence that we can do better comes from the fact that attainment rates are rising in almost every industrialized or post-industrial country in the world, except for the U.S. Today, roughly 39 percent of American adults hold a two- or four-year degree – a rate that has held remarkably steady for four decades. But in several other countries, more than half of young adults are degree holders. Even more disturbing for the U.S. is that attainment rates in these other countries continue to climb while ours remains stagnant.

We do not believe the U.S. needs to increase higher education attainment simply because of our ranking in international comparisons. However, it is vitally important that we be clear about what we know with certainty about higher education attainment. Higher education attainment in the U.S. – the percent of the American population with a postsecondary credential or degree – has remained flat for 40 years, in spite of the dramatic economic and social changes during that period. Meantime, higher education attainment in the rest of the world has increased – in some case at dramatic rates. We believe this reflects a fundamental change in the role higher education plays in advanced economies – a change that the U.S. ignores at its peril.”

Productivity Resources
Next-Generation Student Supports


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