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Census Data Shows America Has Long Road Ahead to Reach First Place in College Attainment

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U.S Secretary of Education Arne Duncan with Chair and Counselor of the Center for American Progress John Podesta at a panel discussion about connecting schools and communities to improve student outcomes at the Center, October, 2009.

CREDIT: Center for American Progress

Last week, new Census data shows the United States made modest strides in college attainment from 2009 to 2011–inching up the national fraction of young people with college degrees half a percentage point from 38.8 percent to 39.3 percent, said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at National Governors Association summer summit.

“To meet the president’s goal for America to become No. 1 in the world for college graduates, all of us – the federal government, states, and institutions – must work together. We’ve made some progress, but the combination of deep state budget cuts and rising tuition prices is pushing an affordable college education out of reach for middle class families,” Duncan said. “We need states and institutions to meet us halfway by doing more to keep college costs down.”

The administration’s lofty goal, of elevating America to No. 1 in the world in college attainment, is ambitious considering the nation currently places 16th. Roughly 60 percent of young people in the United States would have to hold college degrees by 2020 to clinch first place.

New data from the U.S. Census Bureau in 2009 and 2010 shows modest progress on this front. Since this data is from the very beginning of the initiative to produce more college graduates, the administration hopes to see this pace pick up in the coming years.

The new data from the Census Bureau provided a state-by-state breakdown, allowing states to compare their results against those of their peers. Montana made the greatest progress, increasing the fraction of its 25-34 population with degrees by 3.2 percent from 2009 to 2010. Fourteen states regressed in their proportion of college graduates — in most cases the declines were very small — and another four states made no progress. Nevada had the lowest proportion of college graduates ages 25-34, with only about 28 percent of people in that age group holding degrees.

Massachusetts had the highest fraction of young people with degrees among the 50 states, at slightly more than 54 percent, and North Dakota also passed the 50 percent threshold. Washington, D.C., beat all 50 states with almost 69 percent of its young residents holding college degrees.

Headwinds from the states– 40 cut funding to higher education in the past year and the national average tuition at four-year public universities has spiked 15 percent over the previous two years– has made it difficult for our nation to compete with the global economy by putting an affordable postsecondary education out of reach for millions of young Americans.

For young students of color, cuts to public high education are particularly harmful. Those who are most affected by cuts to public higher education are the students of color who rely heavily on these institutions. As an infographic from Colorlines suggests, while funding for public education has been stunted, for-profit universities have expanded. Though they have a reputation for being exploitative, for-profits have been filling in the gaps in higher education for predominantly lower-income and non-traditional students, as well as students of color. While black enrollment at four-year for-profit schools has increased by 218 percent, enrollment at four-year public universities has only increased 24 percent over the last four years.

And as Colorlines' Julianne Hing suggests, the "demand for affordable, accessible public higher education is increasing at the very same time that public investment in those very systems is on the wane." While Congress, along with the support of the White House, has taken some steps to easing the financial burden for young Americans on the national level– like preventing the interest rates on federal Stafford student loans from doubling or reinvesting the $60 billion they saved by taking over all lending of federal student loans in 2010–states are continuing to de-prioritize higher education, making real progress in education hard to come by.

Eric Murphy is a journalism intern with Campus Progress.

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