Not Quite Complete

The percentage of degree holders hasn't increased much during the Lumina Foundation's three-year push, but policy makers have jumped on the "completion agenda" bandwagon.

March 27, 2012

WASHINGTON -- The college “completion agenda” is running behind schedule, at least in substantially boosting the national proportion of degree-holders. But from a policy and public-relations perspective, the foundation-led campaign has been a home run.

On Monday the Lumina Foundation released its third annual report tracking progress toward the foundation’s goal for 60 percent of Americans to obtain a “high quality” degree or credential by 2025. The report found that 38.3 percent of working-age adults held at least a two-year degree in 2010, which is up from 37.9 in 2008.

At that pace, less than 47 percent of Americans will hold a degree by 2025, according to the report, which will leave the workforce short by 23 million needed degree-holders.

“We are nowhere near at the pace we need to be,” said Jamie Merisotis, Lumina’s president and CEO.

The good news, at least from the foundation’s perspective, is that their objective is now shared by many state leaders and President Obama (although the target percentage varies). Specific degree-holder goals are on the books in 36 states, either through laws, executive orders or statewide strategic plans, according to the report.

"The value of setting specific and measurable goals for college completion and attainment should not be underestimated," the report states, noting that because of these goals, factors that influence completion rates "are receiving much more attention at the federal, state and institutional levels."

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The report features degree attainment breakdowns for each state. And, for the first time, it includes data for the 100 largest metropolitan areas. As a result, the report echoes a growing belief that planning efforts to link workforce development and higher education should be tailored to local economies -- often with focuses on the city, rather than the statewide level.

Merisotis, at a news conference here, described several barriers that have slowed progress toward the completion goal, including college costs and the academic and financial preparation of incoming students.

He also had some tough love for higher education, saying the industry must become much more productive. The “p-word” can be a controversial one for professors, who have heard it used by lawmakers who call for increased teaching loads, often while looking to simultaneously cut funding for public colleges.

The report does not delve into productivity in much detail, saying only that colleges must serve more students without increasing costs or harming academic quality. But it does point to potential gains in serving adult students who already have some college credit but lack degrees, an area Merisotis said was an increasing focus for the foundation as its campaign has developed over the last three years.

“This group represents the proverbial low-hanging fruit,” said Merisotis, who noted that 4 million adults hold college credits but no degrees in California alone.

Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, praised Lumina’s inclusion of the metro-area data. “States aren’t real economies,” said Carnevale, an economist whose research has made him the national guru on a college degree's value in the work force.

Merisotis singled out Louisville as a city that is ahead of the curve for linking degree production with jobs. The Business-Higher Education Forum has been active in that city.

Lt. Governor Sheila Simon of Illinois spoke at the event on Monday. She recently introduced a reform package aimed at improving the 20 percent graduation rate for the state’s community colleges.

Simon said Peoria County had made solid progress toward increasing its percentage of degree holders -- 40 percent of working adults hold at least a two-year degree despite the fact that there is no public four-year institution in the county. A strong partnership between Illinois Central College and Caterpillar, Inc., a hometown machinery manufacturer, has helped drive up that relatively high completion rate, Simon said.

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Paul Fain

Paul Fain, Contributing Editor, came to Inside Higher Ed in September 2011, after a six-year stint covering leadership and finance for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Paul has also worked in higher ed P.R., with Widmeyer Communications, but couldn't stay away from reporting. A former staff writer for C-VILLE Weekly, a newspaper in Charlottesville, Va., Paul has written for The New York Times, Washington City Paper and Mother Jones. He's won a few journalism awards, including one for beat reporting from the Education Writers Association and the Dick Schaap Excellence in Sports Journalism Award. Paul got hooked on journalism while working too many hours at The Review, the student newspaper at the University of Delaware, where he earned a degree in political science in 1996. A native of Dayton, Ohio, and a long-suffering fan of the Cincinnati Bengals, Fain plays guitar in a band with more possible names than polished songs.

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