Closing the College Gap: A Roadmap to Postsecondary Readiness and Attainment

Last Updated by Nancy Rogan on

As the United States' advantage in educational attainment continues to decline, Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University joined together to release Closing the College Gap: A Roadmap to Postsecondary Readiness and Attainment. The report analyzes new longitudinal data to link the progress made in raising high school graduation rates to what is known about college readiness, access and persistence; the best indicators of a students’ postsecondary success; and the necessary and complementary roles that both the K-12 and higher education systems must play to raise educational attainments and close opportunity gaps.

In order to look at how the nation is actually doing on postsecondary attainment, the first half of this report examines new and existing data on three successive cohorts of young adults whose educational attainment at 25-34 years of age can be measured today or projected in the future.

Postsecondary Attainment Across Three Cohorts of Young Adults

Postsecondary Outcomes for the Current Cohort of 25- to 34-Year-Olds

This cohort of today’s young adults has the highest levels of postsecondary attainment in the nation’s history:

  • This cohort has the highest rate of postsecondary attainment in the nation’s history and considerably higher levels than earlier generations. In the 1960s and 70s just one-third of 25- to 34-year olds earned at least an Associate’s degree, but close to half of today’s 25- to 34-year-oldsdo so.
  • After adding in high quality certificates, this is the first cohort of adults in which more than half have postsecondary degrees.
  • Between 2000-2014, the nation witnessed a 77 percent increase in associate degrees and a 51 percent increase in bachelor’s degrees, with more than one million additional such degrees being earned during this period.

Post Secondary Attainment

Despite the progress, however, significant postsecondary attainment gaps persist:

  • Women outpace men by 8 percentage points in attaining an associate degree or higher;
  • The White-Black attainment gap for both associate and bachelor’s degrees widened to more than 15 percentage points;
  • The White-Latino attainment gap remained steady and large for both degrees at more than 30 percentage points.  

Grad Gaps

In addition, while 47 percent of adults between the ages of 25 and 35 in 2015 had obtained an associate degree or higher, 65 percent had received some college education, illustrating the need for the an increase in postsecondary persistence rates across the country.


The 25- to 34-Year-Olds of 2025

The second cohort examined – the 25- to 34-year-olds of 2025 – are today’s high school upperclassmen and college students. This cohort has shown promising signs of even further progress in educational attainment and closing opportunity gaps.

  • This cohort compared to the 25-34 years of 2015, witnessed nearly a 10-percentage point increase in the percent of students who graduated high school on time and then immediately enrolled in college, the fall after high school graduation.
  • College readiness rates, examined through multiple measures, stayed about the same for this cohort compared to the 25-34 years olds of 2015, but the graduating high school classes for the 25-34 year olds of 2025 were larger, much more diverse, and less advantaged. As a result, the 25-34 year olds of 2025, saw significant increases in the number of students and the number of low-income and students of color graduating from high school college ready.
  • Thanks to these trends, the 25-34 year olds of 2025, the children of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, are on track to be the first cohort of young adults in past 50 years, that will experience both rising educational attainments for all students and the closing of opportunity gaps for students of color and low-income students.

White students continue to enroll in institutions of higher learning at high rates and still represent the majority of college students in the United States. However, the percentage of students enrolling in postsecondary who are White declined from 69.8 percent in 2000 to 57.2 percent in 2014, due to changing demographics in the country. Students of color have been the driving force behind the uptick in postsecondary enrollment.

  • Between 2000 and 2014, Latino student enrollment in postsecondary education has more than doubled. The upward trend is similar for Black and Asian/Pacific Islander students as well.
  • Low-income student enrollment in postsecondary immediately after high school has increased from 50 percent in 2000 to 58 percent in 2014.

While Black and Latino students have driven much of the recent progress on postsecondary attainment, recent research on “education deserts” shows that students of color - especially Latino students - and students who live in areas of lower educational attainment have fewer postsecondary options, and in particular less access to four-year degree granting institutions. As a result, future gains in educational attainment among students of color in the next cohort of 25- to 34-year-olds may be limited.

The 25- to 34-Year Olds of 2035

Without some significant actions along the postsecondary pipeline, the third cohort examined – today’s 1st through 10th graders – will not replicate the progress of the prior cohorts.  To keep educational attainments rising and opportunity gaps closing, solutions are needed for the one-third of students for whom the current education system is not working. These are the students who are currently not graduating from high school on-time or are graduating from high school but not immediately enrolling in postsecondary institutions and do not appear ready to do so.  

  • This cohort has the most to lose. By 2020, the majority of jobs will require some postsecondary credential or degree. This cohort of students will also be comprised of a majority of students who are students of color and low-income students. The opportunity is now to prepare them for college and career success, or the progress of the preceding cohorts will ebb.
  • To ensure postsecondary attainment rates continue to rise and opportunity gaps narrow, the nation will need to solve some big challenges, including: 1) Working to improve results in the 800 to 1,000 low-graduation-rate high schools throughout the country; 2) Providing greater postsecondary access in “education deserts” and low education attainment communities; and 3) Redoubling efforts for college attainment for students with low GPAs.
Reframing Readiness

In Part II, this report works to develop a road map to postsecondary success for all, arguing that a key to progress is taking a hard look at how college readiness is currently defined. While standardized test scores largely drive the current conversation on readiness, the data overwhelming indicates that the best predictor of college success is a student’s high school GPA, combined with a college ready sequence of high school courses.

  • More than 76 percent of A-average students and 50 percent of B-average students earn a Bachelor’s degree within 10 years, compared to roughly 27 percent of C-average students, 12 percent of D-average students, and three percent of F-average students.
  • Students with a 3.5 GPA or higher were 13 times more likely to have earned a Bachelor’s degree or higher than to have earned an Associate degree. Similarly, five times as many students with a B average (3.0 to 3.49 GPA) earned a Bachelor’s degree than an associate degree.


Moreover, high GPA’s transcend racial, ethnic, and income differences:

  • With the exception of Native American students, 90 percent or more of students of every other racial/ethnic background with an A average enrolled in a two-year or four-year institution of higher education.  
  • More than 80 percent of students of all races and ethnicities earning a B average and 70 percent or more of students from all income levels enrolled in postsecondary.

The K-12 and Higher Education systems have joint responsibility and need to work collaboratively to ensure all students have the opportunity to succeed in postsecondary schooling.

  • Low-income and first-generation students with strong GPA’s, college ready course sequences and cognitive skills have lower persistence rates in postsecondary than more advantaged students.
  • In an era when all students need access to postsecondary degrees and certificates. Postsecondary institutions need to find ways to enable students who graduate high school with a C average to receive the supports they need to persist to postsecondary degree or credential attainment.

Click here to download the full report.

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