A recently released report from the Lumina Foundation found that record numbers of Americans are earning degrees from two- or four-year colleges. The percentage of all adults (age 25-64) with a college degree increased 0.7 percent to 39.4 percent from 2011 to 2012 (the most recent year that data was available), which is the largest one year increase since Lumina started collecting this information in 2008. Things looked even better for young adults between the ages of 25 and 34, with 40.9 percent of that age group obtaining a college degree.
Although we are catching up, the United States still lags behind its international counterparts when it comes to college attainment. Korea, Japan, and Canada, which have the highest college attainment rates of all OECD countries, each report that more than 50 percent of their young people have a degree beyond high school. Additionally, large racial gaps still exist when it comes to college attainment. While 59.4 percent of Asians and 43.9 percent of whites obtain at least a two-year degree, those numbers are starkly different for underrepresented groups with 27.6 percent of blacks, 23.4 percent of Native Americans, and 19.8 percent of Latinos earning a degree. Although the college-going rates for blacks and Hispanics dramatically increased in the last year, the same strong increase has not been seen in attainment rates.
The report also includes recommendations for further increasing college attainment rates. They include: basing postsecondary credentials on learning rather than time, creating smarter pathways for students, and making higher education more accessible and affordable. These recommendations focus not just on those who have a postsecondary degree, but also the 22 percent of adults who have some college but did not complete a degree. Supporting adults who completed some college but didn’t receive a degree through competency-based credit programs and other pathways back to college could be a good strategy for increasing the pool of new college graduates. This year’s increases in college attainment are promising, but the higher education sector is going to have to work hard on accessibility and affordability for those numbers to continue to rise.
For more information on how the U.S. compares internationally on college attainment rates check out our Getting Back to the Top report.