Missouri higher ed among nation’s best in improvements, study shows

Missouri had the sixth-highest increase in the nation of people earning higher education degrees in the past year, according to a report due out Thursday.

“Stronger Nation,” a Lumina Foundation annual report, shows Missouri with 36.4 percent degree attainment in 2011 — up from 35.8 percent in 2010 and 34.9 percent in both 2008 and 2009.

“Keep in mind this 36.4 number is (a percentage) of the entire adult population, ages 25-64,” said Dewayne Matthews, Lumina’s vice president for Policy and Strategy, during a mid-day address. “That’s not an easy number to change.”

A couple years ago, Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration and Missouri’s colleges and universities agreed to be part of a national push to increase the number of people earning “high-quality degrees and credentials” to 60 percent by 2025 — nearly double where that proportion has been in recent years.

“If you factor in certificates in there (showing completion of special courses), then the attainment number is closer to 47 or 48 percent,” Commissioner David Russell said at the end of Tuesday’s one-day conference for higher education board members.

“So the (60 percent) is a realistic goal for us to be shooting for.”

Russell has been the state’s Higher Education commissioner for nearly three years. He implemented the conference last year so the people who help oversee Missouri’s community colleges, Linn State Technical College and the 13 four-year public college campuses can learn from each other.

“I think this was very useful, to put the context of where Linn State sits in its special position as Missouri’s only technical school,” said J. Scott Christianson, Columbia, and a new Linn State regent. “Education is critical to surviving in this knowledge-based economy.”

Carrie Carroll, a Jefferson City business owner, joined the Missouri State University board of governors this year.

“We learned from such a broad range of topics,” she said of Tuesday’s conference. “I’ve learned a lot from other schools in Missouri — what do they do that works.

“And a lot of us share the same issues and challenges.”

Four Lincoln University curators attended Tuesday’s meeting, including veteran public school administrator Winston Rutledge, who joined LU’s board last year.

“The issues are pertinent to higher education,” he said, “and they’re presented in a way that allows you to interact with other people around the state (and) gives you a broader perspective on the issues we all deal with.”

Statistics show that 755,000 working-age Missourians have attended college classes and earned credits — but don’t have a degree.

That’s 23.9 percent of the state’s adult population, Matthews said.

Only 8.1 percent of adult Missourians have earned an associate’s degree from a two-year college, while 18.1 percent have earned a bachelor’s degree and 10.1 percent have a graduate-level or professional degree (master’s or doctorate).

Matthews and Russell noted the push for more higher education degrees should result in more people earning better incomes.

In Missouri, 29.4 percent of adults have completed only a high school education, while 10.2 percent have less than a high school education.

And those two groups were hurt the most by the recent recession, Matthews said, losing 5.6 million jobs during the recession and another 230,000 jobs since the recovery began.

At the same time, people with bachelor’s degrees or higher gained 187,000 jobs during the recession — and have added over 2 million jobs since the recession ended.

“That’s a story that has not been told,” Matthews said. “The recession only accelerated the long-term trend toward a knowledge-based economy.”

Addressing the conference, Nixon said: “The global competition for jobs in the future will be won by the states and nations with the most skilled, most creative, most educated workforce.

“Education is, quite simply, the best economic development tool that exists.”

He noted Missouri’s overall college tuition has climbed only 5 percent since the 2007-08 school year — the lowest in the nation.

Matthews told the conference that low tuition-rate increase certainly has helped Missouri’s higher education programs be among the nation’s leaders.

“The challenges are enormous but the picture is overwhelmingly optimistic,” Matthews said.

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