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US makes slow progress in degree stakes

The rate of increase in the numbers of US graduates is too small, a report by the Lumina Foundation warns.

It suggests that the US must do significantly more to build on the modest gains in higher education attainment to keep up with its global competitors.

According to A Stronger Nation through Higher Education, 38.3% of working-age Americans (ages 25-64) held a two- or four-year college degree in 2010, up from 38.1% in 2009, and from 37.9% in 2008.

If the US continues on its current rate of production, only 79.8 million working-age Americans (46.5% of those aged 25-64) will hold degrees by 2025.

This is more than 23 million degrees short of the 60% target set by the foundation in its Goal 25 campaign, when it called for an annual increase of about 5% – or 150,000 more graduates each year.

The foundation says there is a clear need rapidly to accelerate degree attainment levels.

“More people are graduating from college, but the current pace is not sufficient,” said Jamie P Merisotis, president and chief executive officer of Lumina. “America is grappling with how to grow jobs, skills and opportunity, and this report highlights the economic imperative of getting a post-secondary degree.

“This issue can’t be wished away by fanciful talk about higher education ‘bubbles’ and whether college is worth it. Education is the only route to economic prosperity for both individuals and the nation. That should matter to policy-makers. It should matter to business leaders. And it certainly should matter to our education leaders.”

In a recent Gallup-Lumina Foundation poll, the vast majority of Americans said that they believe economic well-being is tied to holding a college degree. But many state universities and community colleges face both financial constraints and a lack of space and the poll disclosed concerns about tuition increases.

A majority of respondents questioned whether college and universities are able to deliver the job-relevant learning that is required today. These realities have experts increasingly exploring ways to focus on productivity and quality in the system.

“We must do more to transform higher education so we can achieve the higher levels of attainment that are required for global competitiveness,” said Merisotis.

“We must figure out how to better align workforce needs with all kinds of post-secondary credentials, particularly for the large number of adults who find their job skills are less relevant in today’s labour market.

“Likewise, we simply cannot reach the 'big goal' without addressing the considerable equity gaps in this country. Students of colour are an integral part of the 23 million, along with low-income students, first-generation students, and returning adults. A Stronger Nation reports attainment data disaggregated by race and ethnicity to underscore Lumina’s commitment to equity, as well as the social and economic reality that the goal represents.”

The report, launched on 28 March, says that 39.3% of young adults (ages 25-34) held a two- or four-year college degree in 2010 – a full percentage point higher than for all adults and a good leading indicator of where attainment rates are headed. In 2008, young adults ranked below the adult population as a whole.

Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said: “America’s youth is running faster in the race to college but not keeping up with skill and employer demand on the job. Currently, even in the great recession, supply is growing by one percent and demand is growing twice as fast.”

The top five US states for college degree attainment are: Massachusetts (50.54%), Colorado (45.98%), New Hampshire (45.85%), Connecticut (45.84%) and Minnesota (45.79%).

The bottom 10 states are: West Virginia (26.08%); Arkansas (27.92%); Louisiana (28.24%); Nevada (29.46%); Mississippi (29.86%); Kentucky (30.04%); Alabama (31.46%); Oklahoma (31.72%); Tennessee (31.85%), and New Mexico (33.08%).

The top five metropolitan areas are Washington, DC (54.37%), Boston (54.01%), San Francisco (52.91%), Minneapolis (50.06%) and Seattle (47.97%).

The bottom 10 metropolitan areas are: McAllen, Texas (20.78%); Bakersfield, California (21.33%); Stockton, California (26.11%); Riverside, California (27.54%); Lakeland, Florida (27.57%); El Paso, Texas (28.05%); Youngstown, Pennsylvania (28.71%); Fresno, California (28.71%); Las Vegas, Nevada (29.67%) and Baton Rouge, Louisiana (31.65%).

“We know that local business leaders and employers will be key partners in reaching the Big Goal and this is one of many steps we are taking to ensure these leaders have the tools they need to affect change,” said Merisotis.

Related Links
Restoring American higher education leadership
Obama's 2020 target attainable, says Merisotis
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