Better By Degrees: Unlocking the Potential of College Completion
Jul 16, 2012 Comment
How many people in the U.S. have a college degree? If you have a degree yourself, and work alongside a lot of college grads, and live in an area that attracts a high number of college grads, it can be easy to get this one wrong. The answer: about 39 percent (that includes those with two-year degrees). Even if you aren't living in a college-graduate bubble, cultural narratives in recent decades might lead you to assume that the majority of younger adults now earn a degree.
According to an announcement this week from the U.S. Department of Education, "the percentage of 25-34 year-olds with some kind of post secondary degree rose half a percentage point from 38.8 percent to 39.3 percent." The numbers for young adults are currently right in line with overall U.S. totals: 30 percent of adults of all ages have a Bachelor's degree, and 9 percent have two-year degrees, for a total of 39 percent.
These numbers don't look too bad when looked at in a historical context. In 1970, only 10.7 percent of Americans had a four-year degree. In 2000, it was 24.4 percent. But it's not so hot when looked at in a 2012 global-economy context. The world is catching up, and we are falling behind. For a long time, we were No. 1 in the world in college attainment. Now, we're No. 16 among younger adults. South Korea holds the top spot, with 63 percent of those ages 25-34 holding a college credential.
Our current college attainment numbers are a long way from President Obama's vision of leading the world in college degrees by 2020, with a goal of reaching 60 percent college attainment. Despite the Department of Education's optimistic headline ("New State-by-State College Attainment Numbers Show Progress Toward 2020 Goal") annual half-percent increases certainly won't get us from here to there in the next eight years.
A few years before the President threw down the college-degree gauntlet, the Lumina Foundation, established in 2007, put forth a very similar goal: "To increase the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials to 60 percent by the year 2025." Whether it's by 2020 or 2025, and whether or not we count credentials like one-year professional certificates, getting to 60 percent any time in the near future is a tall order.
One key to meeting such an ambitious goal is college completion. Seventy percent of high school graduates enroll in some kind of post-secondary schooling within two years of graduating, but a lot of people never reach the finish line. That's why the Lumina Foundation and many other like-minded groups are working to increase the number of people who complete college.
We have a lot of students who are "halfway there" (or even much closer) who have come up against roadblocks of one kind or another. Lack of preparation. Lack of money. Lack of motivation. Lack of time. There are many reasons why it can be difficult to finish school, even when students know a degree would open doors and increase their earning power.
As I wrote about in my last post, the federal statistics on college completion have some serious limitations. Complete College America, a national nonprofit founded in 2009, has compiled more useful data from its Alliance of States, with 33 states currently participating. Unlike the federal numbers, the resulting state-by-state reports include part-time students, transfer students, older students, those pursuing certificates, and those taking remedial courses. This is just one effort in getting a clearer picture of who is completing school, how long it's taking, and what paths to completion look like.
Not everyone needs to or wants to earn a college degree. But for those who started school and would love the opportunity to finish, if only something weren't standing in their way; for those who would be better able to support themselves and their families with that elusive diploma in hand; for those who have untapped potential that completing a college degree would unlock -- well, for all those people, figuring out how to help them get back on track and finish that degree seems not only like the smart thing to do, but also the right thing to do.
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