Report: College Degree Attainment Rising Slowly

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

WASHINGTON , D.C. – Drawing heavily on the latest U.S. Census data, a new Lumina Foundation report released Monday states that college degree attainment in the United States inched up to 38.3 percent in 2010 from 37.9 percent in 2008.

The progress is a little better for young adults, whose rates increased from 37.8 percent in 2008 to 39.3 percent in 2010.

The modest progress noted in the report—titled A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education – is still a far cry from the foundation’s “Big Goal” of having 60 percent of Americans get college degrees by the year 2025.

And, at the current pace, said Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation for Education, only 47 percent of the nation will have an associate’s degree or better by 2025.

Merisotis said the situation bodes ill for the nation’s ability to meet its workforce needs in a knowledge economy that is constantly changing and producing more jobs that require a college education.

“The degree shortfall is one of the most important challenges for ourselves and the country,” Merisotis said Monday at a congressional hearing room secured through the office of U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-Texas), who attended the event and commended Lumina’s report and Monday’s panelists for being “right on the mark.”

Merisotis said the challenge for higher education is to become more productive, more efficient and effective, and to increase capacity to make sure systems serve more people at the lowest cost per degree, while ensuring access and equity for the least well-served populations.

Dr.  Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, a key Lumina Foundation collaborator and grantee, said the report indicates that there is a “structural problem in our economy.”

“And that structural problem has to do with the skills of our workforce,” Carnevale said. “It is a problem that is hidden well underneath the recession.”

The problem, Carnevale said, is that, despite figures that show that more than 12 million Americans are unemployed and that some 5 million are working part-time while still others stopped looking for work, “nonetheless we know that we’re seeing unusually high durations in job openings.”

The lack of worker skills needed by employers will matter more as the recovery proceeds, Carnevale said.

Carnevale lauded the “Stronger Nation” report for the fact that it takes a more localized look at degree attainment, breaking it down by states, counties and America’s most populous cities.

Along those lines, Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon said she approaches the report “like a high school yearbook. You look for your own picture first.”

She was referring to the report’s pages on the degree attainment rates in her home state, which the report says are “essentially stable” at 41.3 percent.

Simon noted that, although unemployment in Illinois is “unacceptably high,” 140,000 jobs in the state remain unfilled.

“They’re not unfilled because (employers) just advertised them yesterday,” Simon said. “They’re unfilled because there are not enough skilled people to take them.”

Simon noted that the county-by-county analysis reveals some interesting facts. Peoria County, for instance, is not a county one would expect to have a high degree attainment rate because there are no four-year universities in the county, Simon said. But part of the reason she said the county has a 40.39-percent degree attainment rate is because of a training program partnership between Illinois Central College in the county and machine-making giant Caterpillar.

Though the panelists touched on the subject of unemployment and gainful employment, employment rates are not heavily scrutinized in the new report.

Merisotis, in response to a question posed by Diverse about whether the report would benefit from a “payoff index” that provided a better localized sense of whether the degreed portion of the population was working or working in their chosen field of study, said those outcomes will be important going forward.

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