Updated educational attainment data show progress and gaps
New data from the Lumina Foundation on college degree or credential attainment rates for U.S. adults show both good and bad news. The national share of working-age Americans who hold college degrees increased across racial and ethnic groups and rose in all states between 2019 and 2021. The share of adults with degrees or other post–high school credentials, such as workforce certificates, also grew. But Black, Latino and Native American adults still hold degrees at rates well below other Americans.
The data, released Tuesday, appeared in an updated version of “Stronger Nation,” an online tool developed by Lumina that tracks the percentage of adults with degrees or other credentials, based on U.S. Census Bureau data and data from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. The project was paused in 2020 because of data-collection challenges during the pandemic. But recent findings from a year later show marked—though inequitable—progress toward the foundation’s goal that 60 percent of working-age adults in the country hold a degree or credential by 2025.
Courtney Brown, vice president of strategic impact and planning at Lumina and director of the “Stronger Nation” project, said the increase in educational attainment is “really encouraging.”
At the same time, “these data really reinforce our urgent need to speed up progress, especially knowing that tomorrow’s students, our future leaders, will be even more racially, socially and generationally diverse,” Brown said in a media briefing Monday. “To meet their needs in a fast-changing labor market, educators are going to have to rethink and reinvent and adapt their policies and practices.”
The recent data show 53.7 percent of Americans, ages 25 to 64, now hold a degree or other credential, compared to 51.9 percent in 2019. This increase marks the largest two-year jump in educational attainment since the project began in 2008, when the share of working-age adults with a degree was only 37.9 percent. (Including workforce and industry-recognized certificates in the data, later additions, accounts for about half of the percentage points gained between then and now, Brown noted.)
Some states surpassed the 60 percent goal, including Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Utah. The District of Columbia had the highest degree and credential attainment rate at 72.4 percent. All states now have an educational attainment rate of above 40 percent, and 39 states, plus D.C. and Puerto Rico, topped 50 percent.
The share of younger adults, ages 25 to 34, with a degree or credential also grew to 55.9 percent, a two-percentage-point increase over two years. Brown noted that this upward trajectory is a hopeful sign, because what happens to this demographic foreshadows trends to come.
This is a “really good and welcoming indicator for the future of our country,” she said.
While all racial and ethnic groups saw degree attainment rates rise, Latino adults made the largest gain, with an increase of nearly 2.5 percentage points. Black adults had an almost two-percentage-point increase. Still, the national degree attainment rate is 45.7 percent, and just over a third of Black adults (34.2 percent), fewer than a third of Latino adults (27.8 percent) and roughly a quarter of Native American adults (25.4 percent) hold a degree, compared to 50.2 percent of white adults. Almost two-thirds of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders earned degrees as well (65.8 percent), though the disaggregated data show significant disparities among Asian groups. For example, Indian adults had a degree attainment rate of 83 percent, compared to 26 percent of Burmese adults.
Charles Ansell, vice president of research, policy and advocacy at Complete College America, said the national progress made is worth celebrating, but it’s also “obviously not enough.” The U.S. still lags behind other countries in educational attainment rates and has made progress more slowly than other countries because of these racial disparities. He called the gaps a moral “travesty.”
The disparities are “unjust,” and they’re “the gaps that need to be cleared in order to have the attainment rate that would actually be globally competitive.”
He believes states can speed up progress by continuing to scale proven practices known to improve college completion rates, such as remedial education reforms. He also wants states to “fund towards the attainment goals” by analyzing what reforms and resources colleges and universities need to help meet the mark.
“We need to not just be doing the right things, we need to be funding the right things,” he said.
Ansell also noted that the areas of the country that seem to be shining examples of high degree and credential attainment might not be unequivocal success stories and may warrant closer examination in the future. For example, Washington, D.C., has the highest educational attainment rate for adults, but it’s also an area known for attracting transplants from other states with high education levels, so its seeming success could mask degree attainment challenges for certain demographics, such as local community college students.
Mamie Voight, president and CEO of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said continuing to lift attainment rates, and doing it equitably, should be a “shared responsibility” between the federal government, state governments and colleges and universities. Among other policy solutions, she believes the federal government should invest in resources that help students afford and complete college, such as doubling the Pell Grant. She also believes states should increase their aid to students and maintain strong funding levels for colleges and universities, even during an economic downturn.
She added that steep enrollment declines during the pandemic may have halted the upward trajectory shown in the Lumina data and could cause attainment rates to level off or fall in the future. However, she said that outcome isn’t “inevitable” if state and college leaders take action now.
“If they do the work now to re-engage students, to bring them back to college, to change the institutional policies and practices that may be serving as barriers for students to enroll and complete, then they can change the course of what those numbers will look like down the road,” she said.