College Is For Everyone!

Apr 1, 2011 by

College Is For Everyone!

“Going to college” in 2011 is much more than the high school graduate, packing her bags and heading off to earn a bachelor’s degree. In fact, data show that only one in four students enrolled in postsecondary education fit this description.[1] Today, a college student is:

  • The adult with “some college” returning to complete a bachelor’s degree after dropping out a decade before
  • The high school dropout who obtains a GED and completes a career certificate as a nurses’ assistant
  • The dislocated worker who needs to restart his career through an academic program that will offer the skills he needs to reenter the workforce

While states will and should continue to invest in recent high school graduates who seek bachelor’s degrees, legislators should support programs for nontraditional students seeking other college credentials, such as certificates, licenses or applied associate degrees. By deploying resources for credentials and careers that are in high demand, legislators can increase college attainment rates and the wages of their residents. To evaluate the potential impact of investments in college attainment, legislators should use economic and demographic data to assess current and projected workforce needs.

For the United States to remain competitive in the global economy, President Obama has declared that the nation should strive to be number one in the world in college attainment by 2020. Achieving this goal will require an overall college attainment rate of approximately 60%.

The nation has a steep hill to climb. In most states, the annual percentage increase needed to meet the President’s college completion challenge is 4-8%. To reach the 60% threshold, the country will need approximately three million degrees and 4.7 million certificates above projected growth.[2] That translates to an annual 6.3% increase in credentials, or approximately 280,000 additional credentials per year.[3] Some states have a greater challenge than others to significantly increase their college attainment rates.  Despite these challenges, the payoffs are clear — higher wages, more diversified economies and decreased vulnerability to the ups and downs of economic cycles.

States will not reach their completion goals without significantly increasing the college completion rates of non-traditional populations, namely older adults and students of color. The graph below shows lower attainment levels for African American and Hispanic populations. In the South and southwestern United States, the minority attainment gap and Hispanic population growth compound the completion challenge.

To reach their college completion goals, states must commit to policies and practices that reflect the magnitude of the problem. Policymakers must also consider the unique challenges given the current demographics of their state.

Despite these challenges, there is a path to achieving the ambitious attainment goal. Researchers and policymakers are discovering effective strategies for increasing college completion rates. They include:

  • Encouraging more adults to pursue postsecondary certificates that can be completed in a little over a year
  • Streamlining academic programs to reduce time and credits to degree
  • Guaranteeing that students can transfer across institutions without losing credits
  • Ensuring that more students complete remediation and accumulate 24 semester credits within one academic year
  • Providing financial aid to students in a manner that encourages full-time attendance and timely completion of a degree or certificate
  • Awarding students credit for prior learning from the workforce or other life experiences

See also “Meeting Workforce Demand” and “Deploying Limited Resources

[1] Jean Johnson & Jon Rochkind, With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them (San Francisco: Public Agenda, December 2009,

[2] Anthony Carnevale, Nicole Smith & Jeff Strohl, Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements through 2018 (Washington D.C.: Center on Education and the Workforce, June 2010),

[3] Lumina Foundation for Education, A Stronger Nation through Higher Education (Indianapolis: Lumina, September 2010),

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