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August 09, 2017

Massachusetts has the highest percentage of people with a college credential or certification in the U.S. That's according to a new report out this week from Lumina Foundation, an education nonprofit.

While fewer than half of working-age Americans hold at least one college credential, Lumina finds here in Massachusetts the rate is 55.2 percent.

"As much as elite institutions garner national attention, a lot of the workforce-based training programs have done well in Massachusetts," said Jamie Merisotis, president and chief executive officer of Lumina. The foundation is working to increase the proportion of Americans with college-level credentials to 60 percent by 2025.

"Two-thirds of the jobs being created today require some form of post-secondary education and yet right now only 46 percent of Americans have a degree or high-quality certificate," Merisotis said. "So we have a long way to go."

The states ranked next are Colorado (54.7), Minnesota (53.5), Connecticut (53.5), and Washington (52.1).

The report also finds since the last Recession in 2008, the national college attainment rate has risen about 8 percentage points.

WGBH’s Kirk Carapezza interviews Merisotis about the report:

Kirk Carapezza: Jamie, you recently wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that today's college students are not who we think they are. More than one third are over 25. More than half have jobs. And more than a quarter are raising kids. Why is adult college attainment so important right now?

Jamie Merisotis: Having some form of post-secondary learning — a college degree, a certificate — is increasingly important in the modern world of work and so adults as well as traditional-aged students are a very important part of the equation in building our economy and strengthening our democracy through high-quality learning at the post-high school level.

KC: Lumina's latest report finds since the last recession in 2008 the national college attainment rate has risen by about 8 percent. Why such a spike?

JM: We’ve seen some increase in the completion rates for adults as well as overall increase for the population of adults over age of 35. At same time, we know there is a significant gap. Two thirds of the jobs being created today require some form of post-secondary education, and yet right now only 46 percent of Americans have a degree or high-quality certificate. So we have a long way to go to get to meeting our goals and meeting the needs of the country.

KC: Looking ahead, are you still optimistic? Do you expect the percentage of Americans holding at least one college credential or certificate to increase over the next few years?

JM: We’re confident that the attainment rate for post-high school learning will continue to increase. If two thirds of the jobs being created today require some form of post high school learning, we have to get to at least 60 percent in the coming years. To get there, we have to change the system. We have to fundamentally change how we delivery post-secondary learning. That means we’re going to have to continue to focus on the changes that have led to improvements for adults and other populations.

KC: At 55 percent, Massachusetts has the highest rate of adults with at least some college education. What is the state doing right?

JM: Massachusetts has some advantages because it has the highest concentration of colleges and universities of any state in the country, but it is also focused on workforce education. As much as elite institutions garner national attention, a lot of the community colleges, workforce-based training programs have done well in Massachusetts and that has contributed to the overall success for the state. Boston, as [the] largest city in state, is also the second-highest in the country for degree attainment, so Boston is the driver for Massachusetts.

KC: What can states with lower rates of people with college degrees or certificates learn from Massachusetts?

JM: All jobs now are higher-skilled jobs, and as a result getting more post-secondary education and training is critical to success. Massachusetts is a step ahead in recognizing that it’s a knowledge economy and is moving in that direction, but every state — even states that have manufacturing traditions, states that have relied more on agriculture — those states are finding that getting people into high-quality jobs even in sectors like agriculture and manufacturing will require post-secondary learning. That means investing in higher education like Massachusetts and Colorado.

KC: You’ve said all jobs are high-skill jobs. The Trump administration is proposing a points-based immigration system that prioritized education, but many employers need workers with fewer or mid-level skills. Millions of jobs in the U.S. don't require a BA. And some economists say demand for workers without a two- or four-year degree is expected outstrip the growth of working-age Americans. Is it a political or social myth that the primary need is for high-skilled workers?

JM: Most of the jobs require higher levels of skill. In manufacturing, for example, all of the growth is in advanced manufacturing. And advanced manufacturing requires people to have college degrees and high-quality certificates. If you look at immigration strategies combined with education strategies, I think the effort should be to ensure that many more people can get into and through high-quality post-high school learning opportunities.

KC: A new Pew Research Center report shows that just over half of the public say that colleges and universities have a positive effect on the country. How dangerous is that sentiment?

JM: The sentiment is worrisome in that the nature of what we know about work leads us to the view that without good post-high school education, your chances of being in the middle class are low. So those public perceptions about college are misguided and potentially troubling.

If you look just at the post-recession period from 2011 to 2016, of the 11.6 million jobs created, 11.5 million went to people with a college degree. Public perception really doesn’t match what the labor market is saying, and it’s dangerous for us to assume that there are large numbers of jobs available to people without those college degrees. We have to help the public understand that, in fact, that’s where the job growth is. That’s what employers are willing to pay a premium for. We need to turn the tide on that public perception.

KC: In addition to tracking college attainment rates across states, your report highlights persistent inequality in college attainment across different races and ethnic groups, with Hispanics and African Americans having the lowest rates. What specifically can states and local communities do to close those gap?

JM: The gap by race and ethnicity is one of the biggest challenges that we have in the country. These represent our fastest growing populations, and yet for Latinos and African Americans, they have the lowest attainment rate. I think making those populations a priority, but understanding that it is not a zero-sum game. Policies need to increase attainment for all populations. We do need to put our thumb on the scale of those populations that have been poorly served, and Latinos and African Americans certainly fit in that category, so we need to emphasize increasing success for those populations while recognizing that all populations need to increase their attainment levels because that’s the changing nature of our economy.

Read the full report here.

Earlier: No Bachelor’s Degree? No Problem – 30M Jobs in the US Require Less Than a BA

RelatedGrowing Partisan Divides In Americans’ Views Of Higher Education

Disclosure: Lumina Foundation provides financial support for WGBH's higher education coverage.

increasing access and success, Lumina Foundation, higher ed, global competitiveness, Massachusetts

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