A postsecondary credential has become a crucial qualification for individuals to pursue a meaningful career with a livable wage. As technology continues to reshape the nature of work, the core competencies gained through postsecondary education and strategic up-skilling by adult workers will be ever more important. States have a critical role to play in supporting their residents’ education and training, and a vested interest in seeing educational attainment increase. Recognizing this, and driven by initiatives of the Lumina Foundation and the Obama Administration, among others, by 2019, all but five states had publicized a state-specific goal for postsecondary attainment. For many states, this goal is to achieve an attainment rate of 60 percent of the working-age population by 2025.

As part of a larger effort to understand the role of state policy in improving equity in access and attainment, Ithaka S+R has developed a new tool that forecasts long-run changes in attainment levels. This tool, which is now available on the Ithaka S+R website as a downloadable Microsoft Excel workbook, relies on changes in educational attainment as cohorts age into and out of the workforce, as well as historical trends in high school graduation, college going and completion by traditional-age students, and new adult credential attainment, to project state-level attainment up to 30 years in the future. As explained in the technical guide, the tool also allows users to adjust a range of criteria to estimate the likely impact of policy interventions or other changes in assumptions.

In addition to this new tool, we are also publishing a report, Raising the Bar: What States Need to Do to Hit Their Ambitious Higher Education Attainment Goals, by my colleagues James Ward, Jesse Margolis, Ben Weintraut, and Elizabeth Pisacreta, which presents findings from the analysis underlying the tool and related policy context and considerations. Several findings stand out.

  • First, in the near future, the attainment rate, both nationally and in most states, is likely to increase. In the baseline scenario—which assumes past improvement trends for traditional pathway students and adult learners continue into the future—the national attainment rate is projected to increase from 48.4 percent in 2018 to 54.0 percent in 2025. Over the coming decade, all states are projected to see their attainment rate rise in our baseline scenario, with 45 states forecast to see gains of at least five percentage points.
  • Second, despite these gains, the U.S. is unlikely, at its current pace, to meet a 60 percent attainment goal by 2025. Indeed, the U.S. as a whole is projected to be about 10 million credentials short of that mark in 2025. Moreover, only three states—Arizona, Massachusetts, and Florida—are projected to meet their own attainment goals, though 11 others are projected to come within five percentage points of their goals.
  • Finally, the analysis reveals that the greatest potential to accelerate attainment is through policies and programs focused on improving racial equity in degree attainment and serving adult learners. For example, in 14 states, closing the existing racial attainment gap would likely be sufficient to meet attainment goals, when combined with the continued improvements assumed in our baseline scenario. Other states have the opportunity to meet their goals by building or broadening pathways that enable many more working adults to earn postsecondary credentials.

While these analyses show there is a great deal of work to be done, the report also highlights the promising strategies some states are deploying to improve attainment rates. The ambition of many states’ goals, and the nimbleness with which they are being pursued, are encouraging. Our hope is that this new tool will be a useful resource for policymakers, policy advocates, and others interested in increasing educational attainment, helping them monitor progress, identify areas of opportunity for intervention, and estimate the effects of strategies as they pursue these important educational goals.