The U.S. requires a well-educated workforce to grow our economy, strengthen our democracy, and solve big problems at home and abroad. And individuals with a college degree benefit from more job security, employment opportunities, and higher wages. Yet, today, the U.S. lags other nations in the share of our population with a college degree. As others have expanded access to higher education, we’ve stagnated. Why? It’s because the 7,000 colleges and universities across our states and territories still aren’t doing a good enough job getting Black and Latino Americans — whose population numbers are on the rise — across the finish line. And too many policymakers and state leaders are letting them get away with it, failing to make decisions that would increase college access and completion, particularly for historically underserved groups of students. This project offers state-by-state snapshots of where we stand in the quest for racial equity among degree-holders, how far we have to go, and what we need to do to get there.

Where is adult degree attainment today?

Understanding the economic and social benefits of more college-educated residents, over 40 states during the past decade have set goals to increase their state’s share of adults with college credentials and degrees. In many of these states, achieving these “degree attainment” goals will be directly related to their state’s ability to increase the shares of Black and Latino adults in those states that have college credentials and degrees, particularly as population growth among communities of color continues to outpace the White population and older White workers retire and leave the workforce. From 2000 to 2016, for example, the number of Latino adults increased 72 percent and the number of Black adults increased 25 percent, while the number of White adults remained essentially flat.

Nationally, there are significant differences in degree attainment among Black, Latino, and White adults, but degree attainment for these groups and the attainment gaps between them vary considerably across states. In these first briefs, we explored the national trends and state-by-state differences in degree attainment for Black and Latino adults, ages 25 to 64 in 44 states.

A Guide to Statewide Attainment Goals for Racial Equity Advocates

For advocates for educational justice, it’s our job to remain ever vigilant to ensure that these goals are designed with equity in mind, and pursued with the same enthusiasm expressed during their adoption. It’s up to advocates to push policymakers and state leaders to incorporate an explicit and targeted focus on opportunities and outcomes for students of color.

This guide offers a primer on statewide college degree attainment goals and ideas for what to demand from policymakers to ensure students of color are prioritized as part of statewide higher education strategies.

How can we meet these goals?

If America’s public colleges and universities are going to be true democratic engines of opportunity and social mobility, then their student body and graduates should at least mirror the racial and ethnic demographics of the state in which they reside. Public institutions should reduce — rather than exacerbate — race-based inequalities and advance the public interest by ensuring all Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity, are able to seek and earn a college degree. Although these expectations of public colleges and universities are more than sensible, they reflect more of an idealistic aspiration than a current reality. Right now they are broken mirrors of American demographics.

Our Broken Mirror series asks six questions related to Black and Latino student representation among undergraduates and degree earners. The answers clearly illustrate that public institutions in too many states are falling short of their obligation to enroll and graduate Black and Latino students, without whom states will not be able to meet their degree attainment goals.

The State Equity Report Card

The State Equity Report Card assesses states’ commitment to equitable college opportunity and success for Black and Latino Americans. This tool contains state-level data on who has a college degree, who enrolls in college, and who graduates.