To Lead or To Follow?

Across the United States, millions of adults have completed some postsecondary coursework, but not earned a degree or credential. A 2016 U.S. Census report (Ryan & Bauman, 2016) estimated that 17.4 percent of the working-age population of 25 to 54 years of age possessed some college credit but had not attained a postsecondary degree. Similarly, the American Community Survey (United States Census, 2016) found that 20.9 percent of the U.S. population over age 25 reported this situation. Individuals in these circumstances do not benefit from the economic and earning power of a postsecondary degree, but often retain student loan indebtedness, dealing two detriments to their economic and social mobility.

Many U.S. states are facing declining secondary school enrollment or are projecting shortfalls in the number of residents holding postsecondary credentials compared to future employer needs and workforce demands. These forecasted challenges are magnified as an increasing share of careers require postsecondary credentials or degrees (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2013). For California, the future looks differently. While the state will see fairly consistent numbers of high school enrollment and graduates into the next decade, the workforce demand for individuals with a postsecondary degree will exceed the population possessing these credentials (Jackson & Johnson, 2018).

Many states and organizations have established goals to mitigate these looming issues. The Lumina Foundation (2018) reports that 41 states have established future postsecondary attainment goals. In light of these issues, states and educational institutions have explored and undertaken new strategies to recruit or re-engage adult learners or individuals with some college credits completed. California is among the nine remaining states without such postsecondary attainment goals.

Acknowledging this national policy issue, educational researcher Jennifer Rippner (2016) highlights the emerging issue of college completion in the United States. While this topic has emerged organically as many state governments examined education spending during and after the Great Recession, it also neatly illustrates the construct of “policy diffusion” with such state and institutional goal-setting spilling across state lines, galvanized by philanthropic entities with a focus on educational, workforce and economic equity.

Whether California chooses to look inwardly to establish a postsecondary educational attainment goal itself or joins with other states in this national movement, student and family expectations for college attendance and completion are changing. So the question becomes, will California lead the change by setting a statewide educational attainment goal, or simply follow the evolving expectations of California students and families?


Ryan, C. L., & Bauman, K. (2016). Educational Attainment in the United States: 2015. Retrieved from  

United States Census. (2016). American Community Survey. Retrieved from

Carnevale, A. P., Smith, N., & Strohl, J. (2013). Recovery: Job growth and education requirements through 2020. Washington, DC: Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Retrieved from

Jackson, J., & Johnson, H. (2018). California’s Future: Higher Education. Retrieved from the Public Policy Institute of California website:

Lumina Foundation. (2018). A Stronger Nation: Learning beyond high school builds American talent. Retrieved from

Rippner, J. A. (2016).  The American policy landscape.  New York: Routledge.

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1 Comment

  1. Nathan, I didn’t know that so many states, 41!, are vying to increase university degree attainment.

    Increasingly, I’m hearing a different conversation in a more rural part of the state, Humboldt County. The community seems worried that schools are pushing college too much and that people in technical careers like electrician, mechanic, welder are retiring faster than they can be replaced by younger, untrained, people. Being so geographically isolated, there is also much concern at the lack of medical professionals being produced at local colleges and what that means for health care here. Our health care system is already credited at decreasing average life expectancy here.

    It would be interesting to see how other states are preparing for those technical careers. Will CTE courses migrate to community colleges or for-profit schools like UTI or DeVry? I would love to hear your thoughts!


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