Road to 60 – Rallying Cry: States nearing education goals say we can’t stop now

By Lara Couturier and Jenny Schanker

This blog is the first in a four-part series highlighting progress toward the nation’s goal that six of every 10 adults will earn a college degree or other valuable credentials beyond high schooland showcase what’s possible.

“We can’t stop now.”

That’s the message we heard, loud and clear, from 55 experts across 10 states as we assessed progress on Lumina Foundation’s bold national goal to ensure that 60 percent of American adults earn college degrees or certificates by 2025. As that deadline approaches, we’re at 54 percent and climbing.

Since higher education foundation Lumina set this ambitious goal in 2008, 48 states stepped up to set their own goals—with strong results for building a more educated, informed nation. Here’s the proof: The U.S. has seen a staggering 16 percentage-point increase in attainment since 2009, from 38.1 percent to 54.3 percent in 2022. States like Kentucky and Rhode Island are leading the charge with strong 3.4 percentage point increases in recent years, and four other states plus the District of Columbia have already surpassed 60 percent. Others are aiming higher: Massachusetts is at 62 percent today, with its sights set on 70 percent of residents holding degrees and certificates.

While state leaders don’t directly tie attainment increases to goal-setting, they say Lumina’s goal was a mighty “megaphone” for the power of learning. And they describe “beautiful byproducts” stemming from state goals, including strategies for addressing skills gaps, efficient avenues for governors and legislators to debate ideas, and robust cross-sector partnerships. Critically, they also point to new policies and investments, such as attainment-focused state offices, expanded financial aid, and student success funding.

Gaps demand action 

In interviews with Lumina’s partner Sova, state experts and educators emphasized that attainment remains vital to shoring up economies, filling workforce demand, and providing equitable opportunities to residents. They said states have not gone far enough toward meeting their goals, with plenty of unfinished work still to do on the “road to 60 percent” and beyond.

They also worry that without the national leadership of a higher education foundation like Lumina helping all Americans learn and earn, states might slow down or shift direction, particularly those grappling with the backlash against diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts.

Persistent attainment gaps in nearly every state demand our attention and action. Post-high school attainment rates by race and ethnicity for Americans ages 25 to 64 are: 66.7 percent for Asian people, 51.7 percent for white people, 35.7 percent for Black people, 29.5 percent for Hispanic and Latino people, and 26.5 percent for Native American people. People of color, immigrants and rural working people from incomes below the poverty line all face tough barriers to learning after high school.

States need 3 things

As educators wrestle with disruptions from COVID-19, anti-DEI legislation, budget cuts, and skepticism over the value of a college degree, they are calling on Lumina to deepen its work in three critical areas. After all, states say, Lumina was an early leader for equity in education, put non-degree credentials on the map, and reached every state with its bipartisan message that college attainment matters. Here’s what is needed now:

  1. Help states make equity real: Leaders want to increase efforts to provide fair and equitable learning and career opportunities for all residents, and want Lumina as a partner. Some say they’re unsure where to go next in the face of longstanding racial equity gaps, and need both strategic support and technical assistance to move forward.
  2. Turn education purple by finding common ground on credentials: Partners are seeking common ground in this increasingly polarized political environment of “blue” and “red” states. Validating quality credentials and ensuring they lead to better jobs and lives is a strong pathway to building bipartisan partnerships and initiatives.
  3. Find new ways to mobilize and support colleges: The slow pace of change harms students, state economies, and colleges. State leaders and college presidents are keenly interested in boosting the will for change. The University of Kentucky’s Office of Student Success has found a promising path by offering dozens of services and programs from tutoring to food pantries to mental wellness counseling to adventure hikes. This has helped increase retention at the college to 86 percent.

As Lumina and the states plan their next steps, we’re reflecting on progress made—and what’s urgently needed to reach beyond 60 percent attainment and build a brighter future. Stay tuned for the next blog in our series to learn more.

Lara Couturier, Ph.D., is a Principal at Sova, which builds partnerships to drive positive change across higher education. She works to ensure equitable learning and career outcomes, particularly through learning mobility for learners of color and students from families with incomes below the poverty line. Jenny Schanker, Ed.D., is Senior Director of Learning and Research at the Michigan Community College Association. She has led the center’s work on guided pathways, mathematics pathways, developmental education reform, dual enrollment, and alignment of noncredit and credit career education. Both are partnering with Lumina Foundation, an independent foundation that works to help all Americans learn beyond high school, on assessing progress toward its Goal 2025. Visit Lumina’s A Stronger Nation website to see attainment rates by location, age, race and ethnicity.

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