immediate post-World War II era, higher education became a middle-class entitlement in America. A further capstone to the U.S. lead in education in the immediate postwar years was that its universities became the finest in the world. By the 1950s, the United States had achieved preeminence in education at all levels and its triumphant lead would remain undisputed for several decades.2

This trajectory in educational attainment was a stunning success and a defining characteristic of both economic growth and our history of social mobility.

Since the 1970s, however, overall educational attainment has stagnated in the United States, even as technological change and the return to higher education—for those who are able to pursue it—have increased. This has happened at the same time as most countries in Europe and several in Asia have caught up and, in some cases, surpassed the United States in educational attainment. Consequently, the United States has lost a key competitive advantage. Once first among OECD nations in postsecondary attainment, the United States has fallen to 11th. In 2008, about 40 percent of 25-to-34-year-olds in the United States had earned a postsecondary degree or credential at the associate’s or bachelor’s level or above, a level that has not changed significantly in several decades.

Increasing postsecondary success has, as a result, emerged as an important national strategy and goal for ensuring a strong workforce and competitive economy for the future. The College Board has urged that we increase the percentage of the 25- to 34-year age group with postsecondary degrees (associate, baccalaureate, or above) to 55 percent.3 The Lumina Foundation has adopted a goal, through its Making Opportunity Affordable program, to “raise the proportion of the U.S. adult population who earn college degrees to 60 percent by the year 2025, an increase of 16 million graduates above current rates” (2008).4 President Obama (2009) has challenged the United States to have the highest proportion of postsecondary graduates in the world by 2020.5

Patterns of racial participation in education overlay this history in a critical way. Underrepresented minorities were largely and systematically excluded from mainstream educational opportunities through de jure and de facto segregation that continued from Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 through the desegregation and busing battles of the 1970s. This period of exclusion


Goldin and Katz. 2008. Race Between Education and Technology, p. 324.


The College Board. 2009. Coming to Our Senses: Education and the American Future.


The Lumina Foundation, (accessed March 27, 2009).


President Barack Obama, Address to Joint Session of Congress, February 24, 2009. (accessed September 4, 2009).

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