Increasing Degree Attainment in Postsecondary Education: A Challenge for All States

In order to see robust economic growth in the states, postsecondary degree attainment must increase to produce skilled employees for the workforce.  The need for higher-skilled employees is increasing, yet the United States is not producing enough workers with a college degree to meet the growing demand.  Each year until 2025, 800,000 more college students must complete their degrees to meet the needs of the workforce.  Policymakers and education officials can assist college-goers as they seek high-quality degrees and credentials.  Additionally, policies can be enacted to help institutions increase capacity to serve more students and increase system productivity.

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Robust economic growth will not occur in this country until factors that impede full employment—such as increasing the supply of skilled workers and reducing the current skills gap in the workforce—are addressed.

  • The manufacturing era has been replaced by technology and the need for higher-skilled employees, which in turn, requires more postsecondary education and training.
  • The need for higher-skilled workers has increased substantially since the mid-1970s, when fewer than 30 percent of jobs required any education beyond high school.
  • Since 1980, the United States hasn’t produced enough college-going workers to meet the growing demand, and only in 1990 did the number of adults with a college education in the workforce begin to increase slowly.
  • Given the current rate of college attainment, the earnings gap between those with a high school diploma and those with a bachelor’s degree will continue to grow. For example in 1980 a person with a bachelor’s degree earned 40 percent more than a person with a high school diploma. This gap will grow to 96 percent in 2025.1
  • In 2025, if an additional 20 million college-educated employees were added to the workforce, the income inequality would decline to 46 percent.1
  • In 2009, the annual mean earnings for less than a high school diploma was $20,241; $32,295 for some college; $56,665 for a bachelor’s degree; and $103,054 for a doctoral degree.2
Education is vital to job success and imperative to maintain our nation’s competitive edge.
  • By 2008, the United States had fallen from first to second in the world behind Norway in the proportion of adults aged 25 to 64 holding four-year degrees and third behind Canada and Japan for two-year degrees. For more recent college graduates aged 25 to 34, the U.S. ranks tenth in the number of college degrees attained.1
  • Each year until 2025, 800,000 more college students must complete their degree to meet the needs of the workforce.3
  • To make significant progress toward the goal of increasing degree attainment, policymakers and education stakeholders must focus on low-income and first-generation college-goers, minority students and adult learners. Of the population age 25 and older, college degrees were attained by:
  • 12.9 percent of Hispanic males and 14.9 percent of females;
  • 17.7 percent of black males and 21.4 percent of females;
  • 30.8 percent of white males and 29.9 percent of females; and
  • 55.6 percent of Asian males and 49.5 percent of females.2
States can adopt policies to assist college-goers obtain high-quality degrees and credentials. In addition, policies can be enacted to help institutions increase their capacity to serve more students and increase system productivity. Efforts to increase degree attainment can include:
  • An emphasis on programs that help more students succeed in college by containing costs, reducing credit hours or offering credit for past experiences.
  • Holding postsecondary institutions accountable for graduating students from high-quality programs, not simply for enrolling larger numbers of students.
  • A push by policymakers for effective data collection and analysis of student outcomes so that informed decisions are made on all aspects of programming for students. 
  • State collaborative efforts around rigorous academic standards in K-12 to bridge the gap between high school graduation and college readiness, which also will aid in reducing remedial education rates and increase degree attainment.

References:
1 Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “The
Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012. 
3 Lumina Foundation for Education. "A Stronger Nation through Higher Education: