Raising the Bar: What States Need to Do to Hit Their Ambitious Higher Education Attainment Goals

James Dean Ward, Jesse Margolis, Benjamin Weintraut, and Elizabeth Davidson Pisacreta

February 2020


Roughly a decade ago, two initiatives helped generate increased focus on higher education attainment in the United States. In February 2009, Lumina Foundation published the first of its annual ‘Stronger Nation’ reports. This report detailed trends in attainment at both the national and state levels and established a nationwide target of 60 percent attainment by 2025. A few months later, newly inaugurated President Barack Obama announced the American Graduation Initiative, which set a goal of producing five million additional college graduates by 2020 in an effort to achieve the highest college graduation rate of any nation in the world. Driven to action by these and similar efforts, many states began advancing their own postsecondary attainment initiatives. As of 2019, all but five states had publicized a state-specific goal for postsecondary attainment.

In this report, we assess how states are doing against their attainment goals. To do this, MarGrady Research and ITHAKA S+R developed a projection tool that forecasts long-run changes in state-by-state attainment levels based on a combination of past trends and user-generated assumptions about the future. In addition to releasing our report, we are also making the tool publicly available, in the hopes that states will find it useful as they set or revise their higher education attainment goals.

Full Report:

Key Findings

  1. In our baseline scenario, we project attainment increases in all 50 states over the next decade, with 45 states forecast to increase attainment by at least five percentage points.
  2. However, despite these projected gains, we forecast that only three states will achieve their attainment goals by their target date.
  3. Absent additional improvements, the U.S. is not on track to achieve 60% attainment until the year 2032.
  4. Incremental improvements for traditional pathway students – beyond those already included in our baseline scenario – will not be enough to meet the national target or most state targets; to achieve most state’s attainment targets, adult learners must earn credentials at a faster rate than they have in the past.
  5. Closing attainment gaps by race and other characteristics can bring the nation and many states closer to their goals.

Figure – The U.S. is projected to increase attainment by over five percentage points by 2025, yet fall more than 10 million credentials short of a 60% attainment rate


The figure shows the current attainment rate in 2018 and the 2025 projection from our baseline model, which assumes past trends in the high school graduation rate, college going rate, college graduation rate, and adult learning continue into the future. Source: 2018 attainment for associate degrees and above from the American Community Survey PUMS data from IPUMS. 2018 attainment for certificates from the Lumina Foundation. 2025 projection based on MarGrady Research / Ithaka S+R attainment projection tool.