Center for American Progress

A Postsecondary Degree or Credential in Every Pot

A Postsecondary Degree or Credential in Every Pot

President Obama's bold goal of retaking America's global leadership in college graduates by 2020 is critical for our national competitiveness and economy, writes Louis Soares.

A college graduate holds up a diploma during a graduation ceremony. In his speech to Congress Tuesday night, President Obama set a goal for the United States to again become the world leader in number of college graduates. (AP/Mississippi State University, Megan Bean)
A college graduate holds up a diploma during a graduation ceremony. In his speech to Congress Tuesday night, President Obama set a goal for the United States to again become the world leader in number of college graduates. (AP/Mississippi State University, Megan Bean)

In his speech to Congress and the nation Tuesday night, President Barack Obama set a bold goal of retaking America’s global leadership in the number of college graduates by 2020. The Center for American Progress believes realizing this goal is critical to both national competitiveness and economic opportunity for all Americans, and we have previously outlined ways for our nation to get back to number one.

A necessary goal

To expand on President Obama’s point, not only are 75 percent of new U.S. jobs through 2014 going to require some type of postsecondary credential, but the data show that postsecondary education is correlated with higher personal incomes, productivity increases, and economic growth.

In 2006, the income premiums for an associate’s or bachelor’s degree over a high school diploma were $9,000 and $25,000 respectively. Further, regions in the United States with higher percentages of college graduates have higher incomes as well as higher productivity. Between 1980 and 1998, the most educated regions had an average income increase between 12 and 20 percent above the national average while the least educated regions had an average income decrease of between 3 and 13 percent below the national average.1 And the most educated regions experienced productivity growth of 0.5 percent over this time compared to 0.1 percent for the least educated regions.2

As the pressure of a global economy moves America to compete more on innovation, the importance of postsecondary attainment can only increase. What’s more, the evidence is conclusive that more postsecondary credentials are better for individuals as well.

Retaking the lead

For many Americans, it may come as a surprise that their country is no longer number one in the world in college attainment, with over 14 million undergraduates enrolled in higher education institutions in 2008 alone. But just because students enroll in college doesn’t necessarily mean they finish and attain a degree.

Some insight into this puzzle can be provided by digging a bit deeper into the president’s startling statistic that only 50 percent of undergraduates actually finish their degrees. While the proportion of individuals enrolled in college in the United States has grown since the 1970s, the proportion of students receiving diplomas has declined during the same period. Currently less than 60 percent of students entering four-year institutions earn a bachelor’s degree, and barely one-fourth of community college students complete any degree within six years. As a result, the United States now ranks 10th in college attainment for its 25- to 34-year-old population, down from third in 1991, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

Regaining the lead in postsecondary attainment would mean, at a minimum, moving from the current 39 percent of Americans with postsecondary education, to 50 percent by 2020. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests an increase of more than 300,000 credentials conferred per year. This is a game-changing goal because it will require changes in cultural norms of college-going and postsecondary systems.

Increasing the output of credentials will mean engaging a far more diverse group of potential students toward postsecondary achievement and investing in colleges and universities so they are prepared to educate such a varied group of learners. CAP has outlined a way to achieve both of these goals in “College Ready Students, Student Ready Colleges: An Agenda for Increasing Degree Completion in Postsecondary Education.”

According to the report, the first step in retaking America’s leadership in postsecondary attainment is to change our mental map of college to include:

  • A continuum of credentials from occupational awards to bachelor’s degrees
  • A continuum of learners from high school dropouts who need to reconnect to education to credential and degree earners combining work and learning
  • Fully engaging underserved populations(minorities and low income)

This change in our mental map will both better align our postsecondary systems with the needs of our economy and the lives of workers while providing the foundation for elected officials to create or enhance key college investment strategies including:

  • Investing in preparation for college in high school and beyond
  • Providing more flexible and transparent financial assistance through the federal student aid system
  • Helping develop better and more widely available information about college quality so student can make better choices
  • Building capacity to help colleges and universities change practices and develop new approaches to student success in college
  • Creating seamless alignment across secondary and postsecondary systems along with workforce and economic development programs
  • Enhancing accountability by measuring learning and success in schools and colleges.

A new role for federal policy

Historically, the federal role in postsecondary education has been to invest in making college more affordable with important programs such as the Pell Grant. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act continues making strides in affordability with the American Opportunity Tax Credit.

But the strategies in the previous section move beyond affordability and position the federal government to do even more by partnering with states, colleges, and universities to scale innovations that help more potential students succeed in college, pursue their American Dream, and contribute productively to America’s competitiveness. While much reform needs to happen to realize President Obama’s goal, enhancing the federal government’s role and rethinking postsecondary systems are good places to start.


1 Paul Gottlieb and Michael Fogerty, Educational Attainment and Metropolitan Growth, Economic Development Quarterly 17(4)(2003): 325-336.

2 Ibid.

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Louis Soares