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Study: 2 In 5 Americans Earning Degrees After High School

America may have a shot at rejoining the world's most educated nations by 2025, according to a report released Monday by the Lumina Foundation.

The Indianapolis-based foundation's annual report finds some encouraging data to counter the familiar story of a nation that is famed for its colleges and universities but trails many other countries when it comes to the percentage of people with a degree beyond high school.

A bit of background here: The U.S. invented the idea of mass higher education in the 1800s, and it was the most educated nation pretty much until the 1970s. Then the rate of college attainment flattened, while other countries surged ahead. The U.S. now ranks 13th on the list of most educated nations.

Changing demographics, the rising cost of college tuition, decreasing state support and other factors led to that stagnation. In countries that have passed the U.S., the biggest change has been among young people.

The four most educated countries-- Korea, Japan, Canada and Russia — report that more than 50 percent of their young people have a degree beyond high school, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. By contrast, young adults in the U.S. are barely any more educated than older adults: About 40 percent of both groups have an associate, bachelor's or advanced degree.

Lumina has been a prominent advocate of raising that number to at least 60 percent by 2025. It's a target that President Obama supports, though when he first mentioned it back in 2010, the deadline was 2020.

This isn't just about one-upping Canada. Earning a degree means a better shot at employment and higher earnings, and it can even improve health and other outcomes.

The new Lumina report has some good news toward that end. The percentage of all adults with a college degree jumped 0.7 percent from 2011 to 2012. That's the biggest one-year jump since Lumina started issuing these reports in 2008. In addition, degree attainment for young adults specifically was up over 3 percentage points since 2008, to 40.9 percent. More Americans are enrolling in college, and significantly more Americans believe that increasing college attainment is an important goal — 51 percent in 2012, up from 43 percent in 2011.

But, the report says, success is by no means assured. The population of traditional college-age people is declining, as is the overall number of college students, so more of the growth in college attainment will have to come from older adults. And the racial and ethnic makeup of the U.S. population is changing as the proportion of African-Americans and Hispanics increases. Traditionally, those groups have lower attainment rates.

And, of course, the cost of college continues to rise, as does student debt.

The Lumina Foundation report includes a host of suggestions for making America the most educated nation once again. Here they are with our take:

Start counting more degrees

This may seem like a trick, but the fact is, many Americans earn noncredit stand-alone certificates — for example, in trades and technical areas — after high school that give them a shot at a better job. Most countries that post higher attainment rates than the U.S. include these kinds of credentials in their tally. The U.S. Census Bureau plans to start counting these certificates in the education statistics. Counting these certificates could bring the totals for young adults up to 60 percent by 2025, assuming current trends continue.

Change the definition of a "good college"

Lumina talks about an "emerging definition of quality" in the higher education sector. If we start rating colleges based on whether they really help students, especially underrepresented students, learn and complete degrees, it could spur innovations that raise the bar on college completion.

Create new paths back to college, and count learning, not time

Besides the 40 percent of adults who have some sort of education beyond high school, an additional 22 percent have some college but no degree. Rather than stigmatize them as dropouts, we could see these folks as the best pool from which to create new college graduates.

Lumina is among the groups backing programs that allow adults to transfer old credits and repurpose their work experience to get college credit — so-called competency-based programs. The Department of Education changed the rules last year to allow more of these kinds of programs.

Create more-affordable degrees

This is a big one. College is getting more and more expensive. Poor people are far less likely to even enroll in college than rich people. There are a host of new policies and proposals to rethink the way the country does student aid, and the president has made this a priority.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.