By Troy Miller, Senior Researcher and Policy Analyst, Florida College Access Network

Last week the U.S. Department of Education released new Census data on degree attainment for young adults aged 25-34 for all states, showing a half-percentage point increase nationally from 38.8% to 39.3% from 2009 to 20101. During the same time, degree attainment for young adults went down one-tenth of a percentage point in Florida, from 36.3% to 36.2%. What exactly does this mean?

Degree attainment data is based on responses to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which asks its survey participants to indicate the highest level of education they have completed. To get the degree attainment rate for young adults, the number of survey respondents aged 25-34 who indicate that they earned a college degree (an associate’s degree or higher) is divided by the total population of residents who fall within that age cohort. The mathematical outcome of a decrease in the percentage of young adults with college degrees in Florida from one year to the next could be the result of several different circumstances. A closer look at the Census data suggests that both the number of young adults with and without degrees decreased from 2009 to 20102.

Table 1: Degree attainment rate for young adults (aged 25-34) in Florida: 2009-2010

Census Year

Young adults in FL with a college degree

Young adults in FL without a college degree

All young adults in FL





















2009-10 change







Source: U.S. Department of Education

How could this happen? One hypothesis for this decrease is, as a state, Florida has produced fewer degrees. This is not the case. Table 2 shows that in 2009, degree-granting institutions in Florida conferred 171,257 degrees. In 2010, the number of degrees earned rose to 184,277 – an increase of 7.6 percent3. This rise in degree production from 2009 to 2010 is the second highest year-to-year increase Florida has seen since 2003. In addition to this recent increase, degree production levels in Florida have increased every year, with the exception of one (1998-99), since 19934.

Table 2: Total postsecondary degrees conferred in Florida: 1993-2010

Academic Year

Degrees Conferred

Year-to-year Change

Academic Year

Degrees Conferred

Year-to-year Change






















































Source: National Center for Education Statistics via Postsecondary Education Opportunity

To put these degree completion numbers into context, let’s compare Florida to the rest of the nation. Degree production levels for Florida’s degree-granting institutions in 2010 were 98 percent higher than what they were in 1993. For the rest of the nation, degree production rose 55 percent. If, as a state, Florida is increasing its levels of degree production at higher rates than the rest of the country, then how do we explain the decrease in degree attainment levels cited by the U.S. Department of Education?

By scratching past the surface we can begin to see just how complex of an issue this really is. First, relating the NCES “degree production” data to the Census “degree attainment” data causes some problems. For example, the NCES data doesn’t tell us which of these students are earning their first degree5 and we also don’t know how old students are when they graduate (which makes placing students into Census-defined age-cohorts a challenge).  Second, because the Census “degree attainment” data reflects all people living in Florida, changes in population are significant.  In any given year, changes in migration (which can be influenced by a multitude of scenarios not having anything to do with higher education productivity) can affect a state’s degree attainment rate.  In other words, improvements in degree production, and its impact on a state’s degree attainment rate, can be cancelled out or masked by changes in the population. The Census “degree attainment” data also does not count certificate holders as people who have attained a postsecondary degree. This is important for Florida because our state awards the fifth most certificates (per capita) in the nation. Despite certificates being a postsecondary credential, many of which lead to demonstrable returns on employment and earnings, they aren’t counted in federal statistics and international rankings.

So what does last week’s U.S. Department of Education data mean for Florida? Due to the limitations of the data sources6, my conclusion is that the degree attainment rate has in essence stayed the same. This is unfortunate, because as shown in Table 2, we should be celebrating one of Florida’s most productive years in degree production in the last twenty years!  The increase in degrees we saw from 2009 to 2010 of 7.6 percent is right on pace with what we need to help our state reach widely accepted national goals.  Despite the current status of our degree attainment rate for young adults, this discussion reflects the real challenges our state faces in implementing policies that will have a substantive impact and “move the needle” on this metric. Institutions can enroll more students, but they must also improve the rate at which their students finish their degrees. And while institutions can graduate more students, Florida must also provide benefits to improve the quality of life to its residents (high paying jobs, good schools, high quality transportation system, etc.) which will compel its young graduates to stay in state (and attract others to come here).

In order to improve the level of college degree attainment among an entire age cohort, such as young adults, there is not a single lever to pull which will get us from where we are to where we need to be to meet projected workforce demands, improve our ranking among economically developed nations and make possible the kind of lifestyle and opportunities that earning a college degree can present to a broad range of people. To see discernible improvements in the future, we will need our institutions, state agencies, lawmakers, businesses, local governments and communities to work collectively around these issues to ensure that our next in line has the ability to not only access and earn a high-quality degree, but sees an incentive to stay, earn a living, and contribute to Florida’s future.

What might future data releases by the U.S. Department of Education look like?  There are reasons to be optimistic. Our public college and university systems have recently set assertive goals to increase degree production levels. The Higher Education Coordinating Council and Blue Ribbon Task Force on State Higher Education Reform will be continuing their work throughout the year to examine ways our state’s postsecondary institutions can be improved. There are a handful of efforts currently being implemented in Florida to assist young adults who left college early to help them return and complete their degrees. The college-going rates for Florida’s high school graduates have improved dramatically. All of these efforts should translate into a higher proportion of young adults with a postsecondary education in the future, but recent years should be proof that the only way to substantially increase state-wide degree attainment rates is through collective effort and collaboration among a broad range of sectors.

~Follow Troy Miller on twitter @TroyMillerFCAN

1The Census data used by the U.S. Department of Education refers to associate’s degrees and higher and are based on population estimates.  To learn more about margins of error and how these estimates are calculated, check out this website.

2Figures provided from the U.S. Department of Education were used to calculate the total number of young adults without college degrees.

3National Center for Education Statistics data on the number of degrees conferred gathered by Postsecondary Education Opportunity.

4Young adults aged 35 in 2010 may have earned a degree as far back as 1993.

5The NCES data captures all degrees awarded while the Census data only captures the highest degree attained by each survey respondent.  If a 30 year old in Florida earned a Master’s degree in 2010, s/he would increase the number of college degrees awarded in our state for that year.   That same degree earned would not increase the degree attainment rate for young adults in Florida, because they would have already earned a bachelor’s degree.  Students earning their second college degrees (or more) do not positively impact the state’s degree attainment rate.

6Data obtained from the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida actually shows a 1.4% increase in the young adult population from 2009 to 2010, compared to the 2.01% decrease the Census data reflects.

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