Percentage Of U.S. Adults With College Degree Or Postsecondary Credential Reaches New High, According To Lumina Report


A new report from the Lumina Foundation shows that the percentage of working age adults who’ve earned a college degree or other postsecondary credential reached 53.7% in 2021.

According to Lumina’s updated A Stronger Nation, the foundation’s online, interactive tool tracking postsecondary educational attainment, that figure represents a nearly 2 percentage point gain over 2019’s level of 51.9%, and it’s the highest number since the organization began keeping tabs on educational attainment levels more than a decade ago.

“This is exciting because this gain represents the largest two-year increase we have seen,” said Courtney Brown, Lumina’s vice president of strategic impact and planning and director of the Stronger Nation project, in the foundation’s press release. “This is also the first time every state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have experienced increases in the proportion of residents holding associate or bachelor’s degrees or higher.”

In 2008, Lumina issued its much-publicized call for the “Big Goal” – where 60% of working-age adults would have earned a college degree, or other high-quality postsecondary credentials, by 2025. A total of 48 states have now set attainment goals, most in direct response to Lumina’s challenge.

Across the past 15 years, solid progress in attainment beyond high school has been achieved, bringing the goal within reach. The percentage of adults in the U. S. between the ages of 25 to 64 with college degrees, certificates, or industry-recognized certifications, has increased from 37.9% in 2009 to 53.7% in 2021, a gain of nearly 16 percentage points.

That progress has come despite several obstacles, including the Covid-19 pandemic and major economic downturns.

Here are several highlights from the new 2021 data, which Lumina collects from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) and Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce:

  1. The nation’s 53.7 % attainment rate reflects the sum of college degree completion (45.7%) and the earning of high-value, short-term credentials (8%). The some-college-but-no-credential group, a category that’s receiving a lot of attention in recent attempts to boost college attainment, stood at 11.2 % in 2021.
  2. The top five states/locales for postsecondary attainment among adults age 25-64 were: the District of Columbia (72.4%), Massachusetts (62.1%), Utah (61.1%), Colorado (60.5%) and Minnesota (60.2%).
  3. The bottom five states were: Nevada (43.9%), West Virginia (44.2%), Alabama (44.8%), Kentucky (46.6%) and Arkansas (46.8%).
  4. Since 2019, every state—as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico— saw gains in the percentage of people who had associate degrees or higher.
  5. The states with the largest two-year gains in overall postsecondary attainment were Vermont (6.4 percentage points), Indiana (5.6 percentage points), and Idaho (5.4 percentage points).
  6. The percentage of people earning college degrees increased since 2019 across all races and ethnicities but rose the most among Hispanics and Latinos, an almost 2.5-percentage-point gain, followed by an almost 2-point increase among Black adults. (A breakdown by race/ethnicity is only available for college degrees, not short-term credentials.)
  7. Nonetheless, racial and socioeconomic gaps in college attainment persist. Degree rates among Black, Hispanic/Latino, Native American, Alaska Native, and poor, rural adults are still substantially lower than the national average of 45.7%.
  8. Among younger adults – those age 25 to 34 – degree and short-term credential attainment stood at 55.9%, representing an increase of 2 percentage points since 2019.
  9. The states with the highest overall attainment rates among younger adults were Massachusetts (68.7 %), New Jersey (64.5%), Minnesota (63.3%), and New York (62.8 %). The District of Columbia had the highest rate, at 80.7%.

Jamie Merisotis, Lumina’s president and CEO, issued a statement accompanying the results, pledging that Lumina would “stay committed to achieving 60 percent beyond 2025.”

“Regardless of whether we meet the goal within two years, the buy-in to Stronger Nation and the policies and investments it has inspired across the country contributed to an increase in the proportion of adults with education and training after high school,” said Merisotis.

He also praised the first-of-its-kind effort for drawing “dedicated support for higher learning that meets the needs of shifting student demographics and pays social dividends.”

“People working in isolation to improve student outcomes were initially skeptical. Over time, we were able to unite business, government, higher education, nonprofits, and local leaders around the goal of 60 percent of working-age adults with valuable credentials beyond high school,” Merisotis said.



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