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Number of Americans with college degrees

INDIANAPOLIS—Seven years after setting out to significantly increase the proportion of the population with degrees, the nation is making very slow progress, according to new figures.

The percentage of Americans who have earned college and university degrees rose from 40 percent to 40.4 percent last year toward a goal of 60 percent by 2025, the Lumina Foundation, which is backing the effort, announced at a conference here to update policymakers and advocates.

The Topic: Whether or not the nation is succeeding in increasing the proportion of people with higher educationsWhy It Matters: Economists say more degree-holders are needed to compete with international rivals.

That’s up 2.4 percentage points since the goal was set in 2008. At this rate, the number of people with degrees by 2025 will fall 19.8 million short, Lumina estimates.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” said Dewayne Matthews, vice president of strategy development for the foundation. (Lumina is among the funders of The Hechinger Report.)

For the first time, Lumina has also added to its total the percentage of people who have earned certificate programs, offered—usually by community colleges—in specific vocational and professional disciplines. Some 5.2 percent of Americans have those. Another 1.9 percent hold professional certifications and licenses, which would bring the percentage of people with higher educations to 47.5.

Even then, to close the gap, some of the 30 million Americans who have started but never finished college would have to be persuaded to finish, and enrollment and graduation rates would have to be increased.

But college and university enrollment has been declining, and a new report out just two days before Lumina’s shows that graduation rates were also down for the second year in a row.

“Neither of these is really happening right now,” Matthews said.

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