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Reaching a postsecondary attainment goal: A multistate overview

Postsecondary education has become an increasingly critical step to finding career success. Whereas young people with a high school diploma used to be able to find jobs that offered livable wages and strong benefits, the economy has shifted to one that requires training beyond secondary education. Between January 2010 and January 2016, the U.S. economy added 11.5 million jobs, but a staggering 99 percent of those jobs went to individuals with at least some college education.

Unfortunately, the education system has been failing too many American students, with stark differences in attainment rates by race/ethnicity and socio-economic status. Nearly 53 percent of adults in North Carolina have not received a credential beyond a high school diploma, including more than two-thirds of black, American Indian, and Hispanic adults. In response to these persistently disappointing student outcomes, both President Obama and the Lumina Foundation announced ambitious postsecondary attainment goals in 2009. These goals were intended to raise awareness of the critical importance that postsecondary credentials play in developing a qualified workforce and supporting economic mobility.

Since that time, all but nine states – California, Delaware, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia – have set their own postsecondary attainment goals. The MyFutureNC commission is working to help North Carolina develop its own response to this challenge. Our recent brief, Reaching a Postsecondary Attainment Goal: A Multistate Overview, examined the 41 state-level attainment goals, identifying trends and best practices.

Unsurprisingly, the analysis found that states have approached this task in a number of ways. Despite the many differences, some common themes emerged:

  • Most states set their attainment goal for the age range of 25-64 years old;
  • Generally, states included any type of postsecondary credential, including certificates;
  • States typically set an 8 to 10-year timeframe to reach their attainment goals;
  • The amount of growth targeted varied significantly, but about half of the states sought to grow between 16 and 24 percentage points;
  • Some states have set specific goals to close attainment gaps to improve equity.

The brief also dives deeper into lessons from Tennessee, Virginia, and Maine, highlighting the critical importance of building coalitions across stakeholders – including higher education leaders, the governor, legislators, K-12 leaders, business leaders, and advocacy/philanthropy partners – to develop consensus around a shared goal and a policy agenda that spans the education continuum. Postsecondary attainment goals are just one part of a larger strategic plan that should have the buy-in of all relevant stakeholders.

The variation across states highlights that North Carolina’s education leaders have a lot of decisions to make as they embark on this critical task. The state will benefit from a rigorous and ambitious goal with a concerted focus on equity, affordability, and access for all North Carolinians. Find more recommendations in our brief, here.

Editor’s note: This perspective was originally published by The Hunt Institute. It has been posted with the author’s permission.

Patrick Sims

Patrick Sims is the Director of Policy and Research at the Hunt Institute.