Projections of High School Grads Underscore Importance of Adult College Completion

by Peace Bransberger
Senior Research Analyst
Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education
WICHE’s recently-released projections of high school graduates indicate that the “traditional” pipeline of college students is on the wane and underscore the need to transform higher education for adults and other less traditional students, if we are to accomplish any of the recent postsecondary attainment goals articulated by state and national policy makers.
Among these goals and particularly prominent is Lumina Foundation’s Goal 2025 to increase the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees, certificates and other credentials to 60 percent by the year 2025.  According to Lumina, at current rates of credential attainment, the U.S. would fall short of that goal by 23 million two- or four-year college degrees. And, WICHE’s projections indicate that high school graduating classes are currently shrinking in size, and are not predicted to return to previous all-time-highs for many of the years between now and 2025. In other words, there will simply be fewer recent high school grads to prop up degree attainment rates, which have been underpinned by younger, traditional-age college students. 

U.S. High School Graduates by Race/Ethnicity 

(Click the image above to enlarge)
Source: WICHE Knocking at the College Door, 2013.
Note: Total includes public and nonpublic school graduates. Graduates by race/ethnicity are for public school graduates only.
This slowed growth in the total number of potential traditional-age college students means that a significant focus of the work over the next decade will need to be helping adults in the workforce rapidly attain the higher education needed for new economy jobs. As Lumina Foundation acknowledged in its Goal 2025 Strategic Plan, this will include adults who have some college but lack a credential. Making a dent in the 37 million Americans with some college credits but no degree (more than 20 percent of the working-age population) would contribute significantly to having a more highly educated U.S. workforce as other projections predict will be necessary for economic competitiveness.
WICHE’s projections, funded by College Board and ACT, reflect another key demographic trend – rapid diversification of the student body and emerging workforce.  Long-predicted declines among White non-Hispanics are a key reason for shrinking numbers of high school graduates. Offsetting these reductions are the rapidly expanding numbers of non-White youth. Of course, Whites have historically been the numerical majority and the bulk of traditional-age college students. So, while the number of high school graduates might be mitigating, the U.S. will continue to produce about the same number of potential college students in the coming decade – but those college students will simply be quite different. The nation does not have a particularly good track record for educating underrepresented populations and educational attainment gaps persist. Given that our postsecondary education institutions, not to mention public K-12 schools, will be counted on to serve these ever-increasing projected numbers of minority students, we need to address the fact that systems, policies, and practices designed for  an earlier, more racially/ethnically homogeneous era will not suffice.
Although the trends evident in WICHE’s projections should not surprise educators and policymakers, they do reinforce the notion that the country needs to make progress on two fronts simultaneously – improving the K-12-to-postsecondary pipeline, and scaling up programs and services that reengage adult learners and provide pathways for them to return and complete postsecondary credentials. Meeting the ambitious state and national attainment goals simply won’t be possible without them. 



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