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By Paul Bradley  /  
2013 July 8 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Falling Short

Photo courtesy St. Charles Community College

Students at St. Charles Community College flip their tassels to signify they’ve graduated from college. The number of college graduates is climbing, but too slowly to meet the country’s economic needs, according to a Lumina Foundation study.

C  O  V  E  R   S  T  O  R  Y
Falling Short
Lumina: Attainment Rates on Rise, but Too Slowly
By Paul Bradley

Across America, community colleges are doing commendable work to remake themselves, heeding the call to increase the number of Americans holding college degrees.

They are diving deeply into data and devising programs to welcome newly-minted high school graduates. They are remodeling remedial programs, trying to remove a critical barrier to student success. They are striving to make themselves more attractive to adults who might have never considered college an option.

Yet according to an important new study from the Lumina Foundation — one of leaders of the nation’s college completion movement — it’s not nearly enough.

True, the rate of college attainment is improving across the country. In 2011, 38.7 percent of working age Americans had at least a bachelor’s or an associate degree, compared to 38 percent two years earlier, according to Census data compiled by Lumina.

But research shows that by 2020 some 65 percent of American jobs will require some kind of post-secondary credential. Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce says that by 2020, 6 million jobs will require a graduate degree, 13 million will require a bachelor’s degree, 7 million jobs will require an associate degree and 5 million will require a post-secondary certificate. In fast-growing fields like healthcare and information technology, about 80 percent of jobs will require a post-secondary credential.

Unless the pace of college attainment improves, especially as millions of baby boomers retire, many of the jobs will go unfilled, Lumina asserts.

“Our pace of attainment has been too slow and America is now facing a troubling talent gap,” said Jamie P. Merisotis, president and chief executive officer of Lumina. “If we intend to address this problem, new strategies are required and a heightened sense of urgency is needed among policymakers, business leaders and higher education institutions across our nation.”

Data included in the “A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education” report shows just how far the country needs to go to reach President Obama’s goal of having the country lead the world in the percentage of citizens with a college degree by 2020. For example, since Obama announced his goal in 2009, the percentage of degree-holders has dipped in 15 states, while other states have seen only small increases.

Lumina has its own goals, embodied in its Goal 2025. By then, the foundation wants 60 percent of Americans to hold high-quality degrees, certificates or other postsecondary credentials. The most recent figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show that, among young adults (ages 25-34), the current U.S. college-attainment rate is now just 42 percent, ranking the country 13th among developed nations. If attainment rates continue on their current pace, the rate will reach just 48 percent by 2025.

But the foundation says the nation need not look beyond its borders to find evidence of the need for better higher education.

“Perhaps the clearest evidence of the need to increase higher education attainment comes from the fact that employers cannot find people with the skills they need to fill all of their current job openings, much less those that will be created in the future,” the report said. “In a recent survey, a third of employers cited ‘lack of technical competencies/hard skills’ as their main difficulty in filling jobs — up from just 22 percent in 2011. For example, in the manufacturing sector, where advanced manufacturing techniques are dramatically increasing the demand for postsecondary skills, fully two-thirds of manufacturers reported ‘moderate to severe’ shortages of qualified workers in 2011.”

But perhaps the most alarming finding of the voluminous report — it stretches to more than 200 pages and includes a wealth of data, including a state-by-state breakdown of college graduation rates — is the huge and growing attainment gaps running along racial and ethnic lines. Degree attainment rates among American adults (ages 25-64) in the U.S. are woefully lopsided, with 59.1 percent of Asians having a degree compared to 43.3 percent of whites, 27.1 percent of blacks, 23.0 of Native Americans and 19.3 of Hispanics.

Lumina’s research dug deeper to find a troubling trend in the data regarding young adults (ages 25-29), who serve as the chief indicator of where the nation’s higher education attainment rates are headed overall. The highest attainment rate for 25- to 29-year old Americans is among Asians at 65.6 percent, followed by non-Hispanic whites at 44.9 percent.

But then, the gap grows exponentially: young African-Americans have an attainment rate of 24.7 percent, Hispanics 17.9 percent and Native Americans 16.9 percent.

“This is an intolerable situation,” said Merisotis. “We certainly must close these gaps to meet the attainment levels that our nation needs. But the fact that these racial achievement differentials even exist must be rejected on both moral and economic grounds, given the increasingly severe consequences that come with not having a degree beyond high school.”

The report also found widening attainment gaps between men and women. In 2011, 45 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 64 held a two- or four-year college degree, compared to 40 percent of men. Among young adults between the ages of 25 and 29, the gap is twice as wide — 47 percent of women compared to 37 percent of men.

“When coupled with the loss of middle-skill jobs in occupations traditionally held by men, closing gender gaps in higher education attainment is increasingly urgent,” the report said.

States are struggling to improve their numbers. For example, Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College — which in 2011-12 awarded more associate degrees than any other two-year college in the country — is nonetheless struggling with poor graduation rates.

According to state data, only 23 percent of Ivy Tech students earn degrees within six years, though those numbers reflect only full-time, first-time students. The Lumina Foundation report found just 33.8 percent of working-age state residents had college degrees in 2011, up from 33.2 percent in 2010. That leaves Indiana the lowest state in the Midwest for college attainment and ranked 41st in the country.

“I’m impatient for more dramatic change in our rankings and in our percentages,” said Teresa Lubbers, Indiana’s higher education commissioner, according to the Associated Press. “We’re trending in the right direction, but not at the speed with which we need to in order to reach our big goal of 60 percent.”

There are some reasons for optimism. The attainment rate for young adults is 36.9 percent, higher than that of the adult population as a whole, suggesting that people in Indiana are getting the message that higher education is important to their future, Lumina found

That’s a critically important point as the state makes the transition from a manufacturing-based economy in which college was viewed as unnecessary.

“We’ve got to break that kind of mindset in our population,’’ Derek Redelman, vice president for education and workforce development at the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, told the AP.

Lumina, for its part, has developed a new strategic plan to move the country closer to reaching Goal 2025. The plan focuses on: creating new models of student financial support; developing new higher education business and finance models, and creating new systems of cometency-based credentials.

“America needs a bigger and more talented workforce to succeed, but we cannot expect our citizens to meet the demands of the 21st century without a 21st century education,” Merisotis said. “That’s why…we are working to design and build a new system of higher education that is grounded in quality and is flexible and affordable enough to properly serve the needs of students, employers and society at large.”

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Q: What is your college doing to close attainment rates among ethnic groups?
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