New Report Makes a Strong Case for Higher Education

Last week, the Lumina Foundation released a new report, “A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education,” the fourth of its kind to track progress against its ambitious mission for 60 percent of Americans to hold high-quality degrees, certificates, or other postsecondary credentials by 2025.

Why college attainment? The case is pretty simple. As stated in the report’s opening letter by Lumina Foundation President Jamie Merisotis, “At its core, the strength of this nation—or any nation—is its people, the sum total of talents, skills, and abilities inherent in its citizenry. Only with sufficient talent, and right kinds of talent, can a nation truly succeed.”

To compete in the 21st century knowledge economy, to have a pipeline of ideas that drives innovation, and a future workforce (and taxable population) able to lead requires a consistent focus on developing America’s human capital. And while high school graduation and college enrollment are important, as Merisotis often says, it is only the starting place, not the finish line, of the race for workforce preparation.

At a national level, the Stronger Nation report highlights that the proportion of the U.S. adult population holding a two or four-college degree is steady and increasing slowly at 38.7 percent. However, much more needs to be done. Consider:

  • Twenty-two percent of American workforce-ready adults—more than 36.3 million people—have some college experience, but not a degree.
  • Differences are even growing between men and women. Overall, women (45 percent) outpace men (40 percent) in degree attainment; for young adults between 25 and 29, the gap is twice as wide.
  • More troublesome is the severe attainment gap among low-income, racial and ethnic minorities, and immigrants. The attainment rate is 24.7 percent for African Americans, 17.9 percent for Hispanics, and 16.9 percent for American Indians.

In an era where college or a master’s degree is increasingly becoming the price for entry into the workforce, the report makes one thing clear: “This is an intolerable situation.”

Lumina’s 60 percent degree-attainment goal offers a powerful national framework that aligns groups around common metrics and benchmarks as a pathway to systemic change. The bottom line is that the United States needs to educate nearly 800,000 more college graduates each year from now until 2025 to meet the demands of our workforce. The Stronger Nation report serves the field well as a practical tool to gauge how states stack up against this goal—and offers clear targets to close the gap. State and county-level rates of degree attainment exist in a dynamic data-driven website that also breaks down data by population.

Most striking is how the Lumina Foundation is tackling this national issue, recognizing that no foundation or group can create social movements alone. Embedded in a new strategic framework, the foundation focuses on mobilizing state and local leaders, businesses and employers, and policymakers alike—borrowing from collective impact models and looking at other social issues (like smoking cessation catalyzed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) to galvanize public will.

No doubt this is a commendable, real-time example of philanthropy’s unique role to take a stand on an issue, outline audacious goals for the country, and dig its heels for the long-term into a pressing national problem. As the Lumina Foundation seeks to strengthen the country’s talent pipeline through cross-sector efforts, they are joined by others in philanthropy monitoring workforce needs to drive economic development.

Please comment here on ways your foundation or peers are addressing this challenge.
Elizabeth Sullivan is managing director of corporate, independent, and family philanthropy at the Council on Foundations.

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