Post-secondary Education Overview

Last Updated Dec 8, 2021

This overview is intended to help donors gain a deeper understanding of the U.S. education system and identify opportunities to address the root causes of inequitable outcomes for students. See the entire series. By Jocelyn Harmon

Did you know?
  • An estimated two-thirds of job openings require postsecondary education or training.
  • Only 23% of Blacks and 15% of Hispanics had a college degree in 2015 compared to 36% of whites.
  • The pandemic has primarily impacted workers who are women, Hispanic, immigrants, between the ages of 16 to 24, and without any college education.

What Is Post-secondary Education?

Across the U.S., millions of students graduate from high school each year and face decisions about what to do next. For those taking the college route, they face a dizzying array of choices and an often hard-to-navigate market that includes more than 4,000 public and private colleges and universities and 1,500 community colleges, which award a wide variety of degrees. Students can also prepare for careers at Minority-Serving Institutions, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs).

In addition to college programs, there are career and technical schools, formerly called vocational training schools, which prepare students to excel in certain trades. Training for “middle-skill” jobs can be much less costly than pursuing a college degree and provide a clearer pathway into the workforce. According to the Association for Career and Technical Education, trade school graduates can make more than college grads.

Trade school enrollment has been on the decline for decades, in part due to the stigma. However, it may now be making a comeback as 89% of manufacturers face talent shortages. High wages for some middle skill careers, like nurses and electrical and power transmission installers, are even driving some college graduates back to school to re- and upskill.

Why Donors Should Care About Post-secondary Education

An estimated two-thirds of job openings require postsecondary education or training. And according to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, “the difference between the lifetime wages of college and high school graduates is $1 million.” For people of color -- who are disproportionately affected by poverty -- and students from low-income communities, who want to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty, earning a college degree can make all the difference.

Who Is Missing Out?

College graduation rates have been rising over the past decades. However, certain populations still face steep barriers to college access and success. For example, only 23% of Blacks and 15% of Hispanics had a college degree in 2015 compared to 36% of whites.

Percentage of U.S. Adults (Age 25+) Who Have At Least a Bachelor's Degree


Students from low-income families, who are less likely to gain access to the best universities, are also less likely than other students to complete college degrees. A longitudinal study which grouped students by socio-economic status (SES) found that only 14% of students with low SES attained a bachelor’s degree compared to 60% of wealthier students.

Percentage of 2002 High School Sophomores Who Attained a Bachelor's Degree By 2012


Finally, only 27% of first-generation students [who] make up a third of all college students, will attain their degrees within four years. They are also far more likely to enroll in community and technical colleges which are underfunded.

Even when young adults do make it through school, too many are graduating without the skills they need to succeed in the workplace and make family-sustaining wages. That’s because all college degrees and educational credentials are not created equal. Research underscores the fact that your major plays a critical role in determining your lifetime wages.

Median Annual Wages of College-educated Workers (Mid-career)


To ensure that college degrees and credentials translate into good jobs, employers are coordinating with colleges to outline the courses that students must take to be career-ready. These “pathways” are especially important for the large number of students who start their careers at community colleges and intend to transfer to four-year institutions. It’s also important to note that in addition to hiring graduates with specific knowledge, employers are looking for graduates with skills like communication, teamwork, critical thinking, and analytical reasoning. The skills, which can be gained from a liberal arts education, consistently rank among the most in-demand skills for the future.

Helping students make seamless transitions from school to work is more vital than ever as the country begins to recover from COVID-19. The pandemic has primarily impacted workers who are women, Hispanic, immigrants, between the ages of 16 to 24, and without any college education.

In order to get folks up- and reskilled, organizations like Jobs for the Future are urging even tighter coordination among employers and workforce development programs. Grantmakers, like New Profit, have launched initiatives like the Future of Work Challenge “to spur innovation, rebuild the economy, and create a future of work that works for everyone.”

What Is Causing These Disparities?

College is Too Costly

The skyrocketing cost of a four-year college is a huge barrier to success for many students. According to Lumina Foundation, “college prices have increased by 45% on average over the past decade, while household income has declined by 7% in the same period.”

Average Published Tuition and Fees (in 2020 Dollars), 1990-91 to 2020-21


Even public institutions which were chartered to expand education to more students are out of reach for students and families with low-incomes. In all but three states (California, Washington, and New York), low-income students would need to work more than 15 hours per week to afford the net price of a public four-year college. The affordability gap is particularly large in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania where students would need to work more than 40 hours a week to pay for school.

Federal aid, like Pell Grants, helps subsidize the cost of college. Over seven million students, or about 40% of undergraduates, receive federal aid in the form of the Pell Grant to attend college. Unfortunately, the size of the grant has not kept pace with the costs of attending college. While the maximum grant used to cover about 80% of college costs, today the maximum grant of $6,345 covers just 30% of the cost of attending college.

To deal with the stunning cost of college, many students, especially students who don’t have access to family wealth, take on student debt. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, “more than six in ten (62%) college seniors who graduated from public and private nonprofit colleges in 2019 had student loan debt and they owed an average of $28,950.”

Average Student Loan Debt Per College Graduate


Advocates are working hard to advance solutions and pressure policy makers to deal with student loan debt which has grown to $1.6 trillion nationally.

Costly and Time-consuming Remedial Courses

Students who have been poorly served by K-12 schools face another barrier to getting through college on time and on budget: They must pay to take remedial courses. 56% of African American students and 45% of Latino students enroll in remedial courses nationwide, compared with 35% of white students.”  The total cost of remediation is estimated at $1.3 billion nationwide!

In addition to the added expense students must incur to make up for lost studies, the need to take remedial courses extends the amount of time students must spend in school. This can cause students to drop out. A study of community colleges in California showed that “only about 27%of students who take a developmental math course eventually complete a college math course with a grade of C or better ... Just 16% of developmental education students earn a certificate or associate degree within six years, and 24% successfully transfer to four-year colleges."

Subpar Student Supports

Cost isn’t the only thing that makes it hard for many scholars, especially first-generation students and those who are underrepresented, to get through college. Many schools aren’t ready for diverse students and lack the ability to provide supports students need to succeed. A report called College Students’ Sense of Belonging: A National Perspective, showed that “institutions must shift from focusing on whether a student is "college ready" to whether or not the college is "student ready” by changing policies and procedures to support student success. For example, colleges might provide services to first-generation students when they apply to school and track their progress in freshman year. The Posse Foundation is an example of an innovative organization that helps advance college success for students of color by surrounding them with a network of support, including other students, so they attend college as a group or posse.

According to a 2016 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Yale University, 70% jobs are found through networking. Unfortunately, when you are the first in your family to go to college, you are unlikely to have the social networks and capital of many of your peers. First-generation college graduates benefit from working with organizations like Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT) and College Track that help scholars build “social capital” or high-value networks by connecting them with mentors and business leaders. This helps ensure that these graduates will be able to put their hard-earned college degrees to work.

Get Involved

You can make a difference for all college students. First, learn more about college affordability for low-income students in your state and consider making a donation to a Minority-Serving Institution. Next, use the resources below to get educated, advocate, and invest for change.

  • American Association of Community Colleges is the primary advocacy organization for the nation’s community colleges. The association represents nearly 1,200 2-year, associate degree-granting institutions and more than 12 million students.
  • New Profit is powering solutions for the future of work and supporting social entrepreneurs.
  • Jobs for the Future accelerates the alignment and transformation of the American workforce and education systems to ensure access to economic advancement for all.
  • The Posse Foundation is rooted in the belief that a small, diverse group of talented students — a Posse — carefully selected and trained, can serve as a catalyst for individual and community development.
  • College Track is a comprehensive college completion program that equips students confronting systemic barriers to earn a bachelor’s degree, in pursuit of a life of opportunity, choice, and power.
  • MLT equips and emboldens high-achieving women and men from underrepresented communities — African American, Latinx, and Native American — to realize their full potential, to make a mark, and make a difference.
  • Braven empowers promising, underrepresented young people — first-generation college students, students from low-income backgrounds, and students of color — with the skills, confidence, experiences and networks necessary to transition from college to strong first jobs, which lead to meaningful careers and lives of impact.
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