Report: Growing share of U.S. adults have postsecondary credentials, but faster progress needed

The percentage of U.S. adults with postsecondary degrees and credentials rose to 53.7% in 2021, up from 51.9% in 2019, according to data released by the Lumina Foundation. The foundation’s Stronger Nation report draws on credential and degree attainment data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) and Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, which it breaks down by state, race, and ethnicity. The national attainment rate reflects the percentage of adults who hold associate, bachelor’s, graduate, or professional degrees (a total of 45.7%) and those who have earned certificates or certification (a total of 8%).

Lumina has been reporting annually on credential and degree attainment rates in adults ages 25 to 64 since 2008 as part of its efforts to increase the percentage of adults with postsecondary degrees or credentials to 60% by 2025. For the first time since it began reporting attainment data, Lumina’s latest report found that over the last two years every state improved its degree attainment rates by 2021. Washington, DC, had the highest attainment rate at 72.4%, followed by Massachusetts (62.1%) and Utah (61.1%).

Room for improvement

Although all racial groups saw increases in attainment, achievement gaps persist when comparing the share of white (50.2%) and Asian or Pacific Islander adults (65.8%) with at least an associate degree to the percentage of Black (34.2%), Latine (27.8%), and American Indian or Alaska Native (25.4%) adults with at least an associate degree.

“Seeing gaps in opportunities for continued progress helps us to sharply focus efforts as we move forward as a nation, as states, and in our communities,” said Dr. Courtney Brown, vice president of impact and planning at Lumina, Diverse Issues in Higher Education reports. “It reinforces the urgent need to speed up progress, especially knowing tomorrow’s students will be even more diverse.”

While the 2021 national attainment rate represents a 16 percentage point increase since 2009, the rate of progress is still not enough to reach Lumina’s goal. “Dramatic action is needed to meet the nation’s need for talent and to ensure that all Americans have real opportunity to learn, grow, and thrive,” the report says.

When Lumina first committed to raising the national credential and degree attainment rate, only one state, Hawaii, had set attainment goals, the report indicates. Now, 48 states have set targets that meet Lumina’s criteria for postsecondary attainment goals (i.e., the goal is quantifiable, challenging, long-term, addresses gaps, and is in statute or a strategic plan).

“Regardless of whether we meet the goal within two years,” Merisotis said, “the buy-in to Stronger Nation and the policies and investments it has inspired across the country contributed to an increase in the proportion of adults with education and training after high school.”

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