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Americans with college degrees
“The Smartest Cities.” Credit: Source: Lumina Foundation

The rate by which Americans are earning two-and-four year degrees continues to lag stubbornly behind what’s needed to meet national goals, and declining college and university enrollments threaten to make things worse, according to a new report.

The Topic: How many Americans have higher educationsWhy It Matters: The country is behind schedule in its goal of increasing the proportion of people with degrees to 60 percent by 2025.

But a change in the way the figure is being calculated has caused a one-time leap in the percentage of adults considered to have higher educations.

The proportion of people with two- or four-year degrees eked up slightly, from 40 percent in 2013 to 40.4 percent in 2014, the most recent period available, the Lumina Foundation reported.

That’s compared to about 38 percent in 2008, when a coalition of policymakers set a goal of reaching 60 percent by 2025.

For the first time since it has been issuing its annual progress reports, however, Lumina included the proportion of Americans with certificates—credentials received for taking courses connected to specific jobs, and often conferred by community colleges.

Since 4.9 percent of people have certificates of some kind that are relevant to the jobs they hold, this boosts the share of people with postsecondary education in the United States to 45.3 percent.

Still, the country has fallen from first in the world by this measure to 13th, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, behind Korea, Japan, Canada, and other economic rivals.

And even with certificates added, it’s so far behind schedule to meet its 60 percent goal that, at this pace, it will fall short by nearly 11 million degree-holders, the report said.

Lumina also raised warnings about the impact of declining college and university enrollment. Enrollment nationwide has dropped for eight semesters in a row, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, further complicating efforts to meet the 2025 target. (The Lumina Foundation is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)

Success rates also vary widely by race. Sixty-one percent of Asians have postsecondary educations, compared to about half of whites, 34 percent of blacks, and 27 percent of Hispanics.

This creates still more challenges, considering that the college-aged population is increasingly comprised of ethnic and racial minorities and children of parents who do not have higher educations themselves.

Lumina said doing a better job of preparing students like these for college could eventually add 3.7 million more graduates with degrees. Encouraging more people to go back to school who are older than 24 could produce another 3.9 million.

Lumina and others argue that increasing the percentage of degree-holders is essential for the nation to compete. The number of jobs held by workers with a high school diploma or less fell by 6.3 million during the economic recession, while the number of jobs requiring some postsecondary education has grown by 700,000, it said.

Twenty-six states have now adopted their own goals for degree attainment—15 of them in the last year.

The best-educated are Massachusetts, 55 percent of whose population has postsecondary educations; Colorado, 54 percent; and Connecticut and Minnesota, 53 percent each.

The most educated metropolitan areas are Washington, where 56 percent of residents hold degrees and certificates; Boston, with 55 percent; and San Francisco (54 percent).

The states with the lowest proportion of people who have postsecondary educations: West Virginia (33 percent), Nevada (35 percent), Mississippi (36 percent), Alabama (37 percent), and Idaho (38 percent).

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

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