Why the Nation Needs to do College Attainment Better

By Michael Nettles

I had the good fortune to be born in 1955 near the beginning of an exciting and progressive era of science, civil rights and education policy in the United States. Observing all three branches of the federal government taking action to eliminate segregation and plant seeds of racial equality, conditioned me for a life as an optimist about our future.

At the same time I observed and participated on the battlefield of peaceful demonstrations which were part of the impetus for major civil rights action. That era of struggle and progress contributed to shaping my present view of and aspirations for equality. I grew up with the expectation that the United States would grow to be a stronger nation composed of a diverse population achieving and benefiting equally in education and employment. I also learned the value of vigilance and how data analyses and research are essential tools for taking stock, setting goals for progress and trying to ensuring accurate public perception.

I remember my ninth-grade biology teacher at Father Ryan High School in Nashville presenting a small amount of population data to convey a rather narrow and unflattering perspective about education and employment of African Americans. I was one of the few black students in my class and I knew that what was being presented to us lacked sufficient context, history, data and analyses. So I set out to find and analyze the data to offer a more accurate and complete perspective.

From my school years through the present, I have employed data and analyses and scholarship as strategies for eliciting clarity, tolerance and for provoking and contributing to progressive action.

~ Michael Nettles

With the encouragement of my teacher, I employed population, trend and geographic data to convey a more positive impression about the lives and education and economic progress and accomplishments of African Americans. From that time forward I have raised and attempted to address the questions that need to be addressed on behalf of underrepresented minority and underserved populations in pursuit of equality.

From my school years through the present, I have employed data and analyses and scholarship as strategies for eliciting clarity, tolerance and for provoking and contributing to progressive action.

The degree to which different racial groups have varying levels of access to colleges and universities has always concerned me. So it was with keen interest that I followed the creation of and progress made toward the college degree attainment goals set forth in 2009 by President Barack Obama for 2020 and Lumina Foundation for 2025. For those unfamiliar with the targets, a brief explainer:

United States Government’s Post-Secondary Degree Completion Goal: By 2020, 60 percent of the U.S. Population ages 25–34 to have an associate degree or higher.

Lumina Foundation’s “Goal 2025”: By 2025, 60 percent of the U.S. Population ages 25–64 to have a high quality postsecondary certificate, associate degree or higher.

My latest report titled “Challenges and Opportunities in Achieving the National Postsecondary Degree Attainment Goals,” we know now that only two groups are on track to meet these goals: Asian Americans have, in fact, already exceeded the 2020 and 2025 targets, while white women are projected to reach the 60 percent threshold by the U.S. government’s date. White males are also expected to reach both goals a few years later.

Given that the U.S. Census Bureau forecasts the U.S. population through 2060, that is as far as we can project degree attainment; so I’ll be 101 years old in that year and African-American, American-Indian/Alaskan Native and Hispanic populations will still not have hit the targets. Good genetics notwithstanding, I might be long gone when those benchmarks are cleared unless we act now to both increase quality and accelerate the pace.

We’ve made gradual progress in this country in closing achievement gaps, lowering barriers to higher education attainment and increasing college completion rates. But progress is not coming quickly enough, and that realization comes with undeniably negative societal impacts for us all.

Our country has become more acutely aware over these past several years that we’re living in a tiered society of inequality that often leads to hostility. Higher education remains the ultimate equalizer, our best hope for narrowing income gaps. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 11 of the 15 fastest-growing occupations in the United States require some college, and nine of those 15 jobs require an associate or bachelor’s degree. Any chance African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics have at lessening income disparities depends on surpassing the 60 percent college completion rate. If not, gaps will widen and socioeconomic and racial inequality will persist.

My sense is that people reading this report will not be surprised that non-Asian minorities in this country are falling farther behind when it comes to higher education. The federal government’s 2020 initiative wasn’t the first from a president setting national goals for higher education; hopefully it won’t be the last. Having a powerful philanthropic partner like Lumina Foundation should be a major asset.

This report from ETS’s Policy Evaluation & Research Center simply presents a healthy if not hard-to-stomach dose of reality. Just as I searched for data-driven explanations back in my high school biology class, I am now seeking the public’s attention to quantitative proof that we have a problem that requires swift action. My recommendations can be read in the executive summary.

I’ll be 101 years old in that year and African-American, American-Indian/Alaskan Native and Hispanic populations will still not have hit the targets.

~ Michael Nettles

While our task is unnerving, it is not insurmountable. There are better mechanisms in place now for us to address these education inequalities head on. Technological advances over the past decade-plus, for example, equip students with the vehicles that lead them to information about the areas of their struggle on their PSAT® so they can learn and achieve better, and perhaps even prepare better for the SAT®. We’re seeing the private sector get increasingly involved with social impact bonds, a relatively new way to generate funding outside of the government that results in better educational and societal outcomes. And innovative programs like the Kalamazoo Promise — in which graduates of Kalamazoo, Mich., public schools receive tuition to public universities and community colleges in Michigan, courtesy of unnamed donors — are popping up across the country at an impressive rate and with a variety of financing strategies.

Getting more underrepresented minorities into college and seeing them through completion are the crucial first steps. Ensuring that more people are able to meet the educational challenges they’ll face on campus is what we at ETS are seeking toward moving forward with addressing through research, innovation and advocacy.

The Federal Government’s 2020 and Lumina Foundation 2025 goals are good. We know what we must do, and we know that the odds of reaching our targets are daunting. There are 36 million Americans who have some college but no degree. That’s a population with which to start. Now we must do everything we can to ensure that not only the country meets these goals overall, but those meeting these goals are representative of our country.

Michael T. Nettles is Senior Vice President and the Edmund W. Gordon Chair of ETS’s Policy Evaluation & Research Center (PERC).