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Minimal Progress Reported in College Completion Rates

The president is calling for it. The economy is demanding it. Yet, the percentage of Americans earning college degrees is not climbing as quickly as many hoped.

A report released today by the Lumina Foundation for Education, an independent, Indianapolis-based foundation that advocates expanded access and success in education beyond high school, shows the rate of higher education attainment was virtually stagnant from 2007 to 2008. In 2007, 37.7 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 had two- or four-year college degrees; in 2008, the figure was 37.9 percent.

This year's report includes data and profiles on college completion for individual states and counties. (Click here.)

The report, A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education, chronicles progress toward the Lumina Foundation's "Big Goal" that 60 percent of Americans hold post-secondary degrees or certificates by 2025—an increase of 23 million graduates above current rates. President Obama has also set a goal to restore America's lead in the number of college graduates by the 2020.

Americans need to boost their education to keep up with the competitive, global, knowledge-based economy, says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and Workforce, which released a report in June on the topic. His findings predict that by the year 2018, the nation will have a shortage of 3 million workers with the necessary postsecondary degrees to fill the jobs of the future.

"You don't go anywhere anymore in the American economy or any modern economy without going to some postsecondary education or training first," says Carnevale. "This is relatively new in the United States." In the past two recessions, people with high school degrees or less were three times more likely to be unemployed long term that those with more education, he noted.

Still, the Lumina Foundation says a 50 percent increase in college graduates in 15 years is a realistic time frame. Dewayne Matthews, vice president for public policy and strategy at Lumina, notes that it would take an increase of 280,000 degrees each year until 2025. That is not unprecedented, he says, pointing out that colleges dramatically increased capacity in the 1950s and the 1970s.

To grow the number of college grads, the Lumina Foundation suggests reaching out to working adults who never finished their degrees. More than 37 million Americans (22 percent of the workforce) have attended some college but have not completed a degree, the report notes. Focus should also be on low-income, first-generation students of color, who continue to lag in college completion but are becoming a larger share of the potential student pool.

What can high schools do to help America reach the "Big Goal"? Students need to be better prepared academically, socially and financially, says Jane Kramer, a program officer for the Lumina Foundation. High schools should do more to expand dual enrollment, Advanced Placement, and International Baccalaureate programs, she says. Teachers need to set high expectation for performance and push rigorous courses.

There needs to be greater conversations between high schools and colleges aligning curriculum so fewer students arrive on campus in need of remedial courses, Kramer adds. Teachers need to coordinate with after school and summer enrichment programs to share information about students to boost their performance.

Schools also should take some responsibility for helping families navigate through the financial aid system and provide "wrap around" services to support first-generation students who may not be familiar with the college process.

High schools that have been successful in preparing students for college have set concrete goals, such as increasing the number of minority students by a certain percentage in a specific time period.

"Colleges need to step up, too," adds Kramer. "That's their pipeline—the students who will come to them and pay tuition."

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