There is little doubt that a post-secondary degree or certificate is a key to success in our increasingly knowledge-driven economy. More and more industries are relying on highly-skilled workers and the number of jobs that require less than a college degree continues to contract.
This means that college attainment is not only an important issue for individuals. It is also a crucial economic issue that we cannot ignore.
As a report earlier this year from College Success Arizona shows, increasing the number of individuals that hold a college degree has the potential to dramatically benefit state economies. Arizona, for example, stands to gain more than $7 billion—one-fifth of the entire state budget—simply by increasing its attainment rate to meet future labor market needs for workers with a college education. Consequently, it is imperative that we redouble our efforts to ensure that more Americans are able to enroll in college and earn a degree.
Strong College Attainment Goals
A key first step toward achieving this objective is for all states to establish strong college attainment goals that will help organize efforts, to increase attainment and create a college-going culture. As many as 16 states—including Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky and Texas—have already established strong attainment goals and are beginning to reap the benefits of their investments.
Strong attainment goals not only respond to the projected labor needs in each state, they also include target dates for realizing those attainment gains and, importantly, contain provisions for reducing the attainment gaps between White and minority students. If all states were to set such goals, we would likely see a tremendous increase in attainment rates across the country.
Nationally, we are already seeing progress on important indicators that impact college attainment. The high school graduation rate is now at a record-high of 82 percent, and the gap between minority and White student graduation rates is shrinking. This means that more and more minority students are eligible to attend college, which is a great sign for our society and for our economy.
Race and College Completion
In fact, the decrease in the national dropout rate between 2000 and 2013 is in part attributable to the fact that the number of Latinos that drop out of high school has plummeted from 32 to 14 percent over that period. And, since 1993, the number of Latinos enrolled in college has soared to 2.2 million, nearly triple the 728,000 that attended college in 1993. Although there is much work to be done, it is encouraging that from 1990 to 2014, the percentage of 25- to 29-year-old Latinos who have attained a bachelor’s degree or higher almost doubled from 8 to 15 percent.
There remain, however, some disconcerting education disparities with respect to race, college enrollment and college completion. In particular, despite reducing the gap between high school graduation rates for White and minority students, and the shrinking college enrollment gap, college attainment rates remain stubbornly unequal.
This is especially true for Latino students. According to the Pew Research Center, Latinos trail well behind other groups when it comes to obtaining a bachelor’s degree. In 2013, while 15 percent of Latinos between the ages of 25 and 29 held a bachelor’s degree, 40 percent of Whites and 20 percent of Blacks in the same age group earned those degrees. The gap may be rooted in enrollment habits. In fact, 46 percent of Latinos enroll at two-year colleges, and have completion rates well below their 4-year peers.
We cannot ignore the fact that despite many promising gains, Latinos are not keeping pace with the rest of the population when it comes to college attainment. If we expect to remain economically competitive as a nation, we must do more to increase the number of Latinos with a college degree, and especially the number of those who hold a bachelor’s degree.