Reporting on an “Audacious but Attainable” Goal

In 2009, Lumina Foundation set a goal: we wanted to help 60 percent of Americans obtain a high-quality postsecondary degree or be credential by 2025. We began reporting on progress toward the “big goal” in a series called A Stronger Nation through Higher Education. At the time, setting a national goal and reporting progress was seen by some as audacious at best (and perhaps by others as presumptuous), even for a national foundation focused on college access and success. In fact, we called our goal “audacious but attainable” in our first strategic plan.

On March 26, we released the 2012 edition of A Stronger Nation at an event on Capitol Hill. Media interest in the report has grown and this year we did over 50 radio and newspaper interviews for national and local coverage. To enhance local relevance, we added attainment data on the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. to the state and county information that has been in the report since from the beginning.

This year’s report also included breakdowns of data by race, ethnicity, and level of education, as well as a scenario for how to close the gap and reach 60 percent attainment by 2025. To make the data as widely accessible as possible, we created an extensive web portal with additional analyses and even produced an iPhone app (look for Stronger Nation in the app store).

At first, we intended the Big Goal to provide focus to our own work and answer the calls for foundations to be more transparent about their strategic objectives. Very quickly, however, we found that the goal became an important strategic initiative in its own right by helping call attention to the need to increase higher education attainment. Thirty-six states now have goals for attainment; 15 have set challenging and specific goals and are committed to an ongoing measurement of progress. The president continues to focus national attention on attainment, calling it “an economic imperative” in his most recent State of the Union address. Colleges and universities, too, are increasingly focused on completion and attainment, as the need for more citizens with postsecondary degrees to bolster our economy, strengthen our democracy, and lead our communities is better understood.

Some in higher education have suggested that Lumina’s singular focus on increasing higher education attainment and our willingness to publically report national and local progress represents a change of direction or even a new kind of advocacy-based philanthropy. We don’t see it that way. For one thing, in developing A Stronger Nation, we drew from models that had been developed by other foundations-perhaps most notably Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count. Nor has philanthropy historically shied away from trying to shift public will or policy, as foundations from Rockefeller and Ford on down to Robert Wood Johnson and many others have repeatedly demonstrated.

So what does this year’s A Stronger Nation show about national progress in increasing higher education attainment? In 2010, the percentage of Americans between the ages of 25-64 with a two or four-year college degree was 38.3 percent. The rate is increasing slowly but steadily, up from 38.1 percent in 2009 and 37.9 percent in 2008. In 2010, the higher education attainment rate of young adults ages 25-34-a good leading indicator of where higher education attainment rates are headed-was 39.3 percent, a full percentage point higher than all adults and one and a half percentage points higher than 2008.

This is a step in the right direction, but we must accelerate progress for the nation to reach the big goal. That task remains the focus of Lumina’s work.

Dewayne Matthews is vice president for policy and strategy at the Lumina Foundation, a member of the Council on Foundations.

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