What is Attainment

​​​​​​Po​stsecondary Attainment: What It Is and Why It Matters

A century ago in the United States, a high school diploma was the minimum standard of a formal education ​and could lead one to solid prospects for employment and quality of life (Kanter & Venkatesan, 2020). Today, that is no longer the case. In the post-recession global economy, a postsecondary credential—whether a certificate or degree—is essentially a requirement for a good job and decent quality of life (Cutler White, 2019). To illustrate, 99% of the 11.5 million jobs created between 2009 and 2015 required education beyond high school (Carnevale et al., 2016). Not only do postsecondary credentials financially benefit the person who earns them, but also future generations. Education is a form of capital that can mediate disparities into which one is born and serve as a driver of intergenerational mobility. Outside of the economic benefits it brings, postsecondary education is associated with numerous non-monetary benefits for individuals. These include increased happiness, the development of critical thinking skills, a greater sense of agency and empowerment, better overall health, longer life expectancy, and lower mortality rates (Carnevale et al., 2021). It is no exaggeration that “education beyond high school is critical for success in our global economy, for our social fabric, and for our personal and collective well-being” (Kanter & Venkatesan, 2020).

The benefits of credentials beyond a high school diploma at the individual level translate to an enormous economic and social impact across the general population. The economic benefits to a society with higher overall educational attainment include increased tax revenue, higher GDP, and lower expenditures on criminal justice, public health, and governmental assistance programs. In addition, higher educational attainment rates in a society are associated with lower criminal activity and incarceration, higher civic engagement, community involvement, support for free speech, volunteerism, non-profit employment, charitable contributions, reduced authoritarianism, and increased tolerance (Carnevale et al., 2021).

To be able to determine if a community is reaping the benefits of educational attainment, researchers must be able to define and measure it. Postsecondary attainment is commonly defined as the percentage of the population, aged 25 to 64, that has completed some form of postsecondary education beyond high school. This includes the U.S. Census categories of some college (including certificate programs), associate degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, professional degree, and doctoral degree. The overview below highlights Dallas College and the contexts within which it operates—national, state, and regional—in terms of postsecondary attainment 1. Recommendations for policymakers and researchers are provided with respect to maximizing attainment and the individual and collective benefits it brings.

State Context

Building a Talent Strong Texas

Due to the economic and social benefits it brings, attainment has become a key focus of policymakers, particularly at the state level. Higher education institutions alone cannot improve educational attainment through piecemeal initiatives. Large-scale policy change is required (Cutler White, 2019), and 43 states currently have official postsecondary goals in place, most with a sizeable gap yet to close. In Texas, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) is​ the governance body leading the attainment agenda, which is laid out in its new 2022 – 2030 strategic plan, Building a Talent Strong Texas​​. A changing economy and the effects of COVID-19 necessitated updates to the state’s former plan, 60x30TX; now the three data-driven attainment goals of Texas are 1) that 60% of Texans aged 25-64 will receive a degree, certificate, or other postsecondary credential of value by the year 2030; 2) that 550,000 students will complete a postsecondary credential of value each year, and 95% of students will graduate with either no undergraduate debt or manageable levels of debt with relation to their potential earnings; and 3) that Texas will be a leader in research and economic development with $1 billion in annual private and federal research and development expenditures by 2030 and with 7,500 research doctorates awarded annually.

Status of Attainment in Texas

Figure 1 illustrates the number of individuals in Texas (aged 25 and older) at each level of educational attainment in the year 2020, according to U.S. Census data. While discussions about postsecondary attainment tend to focus on the pathway from high school graduation to a certificate or degree, the distribution of individuals across lower levels of attainment indicates that bringing individuals to a postsecondary credential will require comprehensive efforts far earlier in the educational pipeline. Two attainme​nt levels less than a high school diploma/equivalency (namely, less than a 9th-grade education and a 9th- to 12th-grade education) are each comprised of more than 1.3 million Texans aged 25 years or older. Building a Talent Strong Texas does acknowledge the significance of early engagement through initiatives on student pathways, but for the millions who stop out of the system early in high school (or even before), dual-credit programs like Early College High School or P-TECHs may never be an option. Maximizing the number of students who continue all the way to completion of a postsecondary credential requires integrated support across the entire K-16 pipeline, with targeted efforts beginning at least as early as middle school (Education Strategy Group [ESG] et al., 2018).

Figure 1: Educational Attainment in Texas, 2020

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Note: Data source: U.S. Census Bureau (2021).

While acknowledging the myriad factors from the early grades of education that are at play in postsecondary attainment, the focus of this brief lies on the later end of the spectrum, beginning with the “Some College, No Degree” category, which includes certificate holders. When including associate degrees, as well as postsecondary and industry-recognized certificates, Texas increased its percentage of credential holders from 33.2% to 47.9% between 2009 and 2019 for workers aged 25-64 (see Figure 2); however, it still falls short of the national average of 51.9%. While ​Texas has increased its attainment rates for workers aged 25 to 64 by 14.7 percentage points, a significant amount of progress remains to achieve the target goal of 60% by 2030. The state would need to increase its attainment percentage at a rate of 1.1 percentage points each year between now and 2030. Currently, Texas averages a year-over-year increase of almost 1.5 percentage points, but that is from the sharp increases in 2014 and 2018 because of the addition of different types of short-term credentials to the methodology. With those removed, Texas’s annual increase in attainment averages less than 0.7 percentage points per year.

Figure 2: Percentages of Texas and U.S. Populations Aged 25-64 with Postsecondary Credentials

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Note: National data source: U.S. Census Bureau (2021) with Lumina Foundation estimates for certificate attainment. State data source: U.S. Census Bureau (2021) with Georgetown CEW estimate for certificate attainment. Read more about both methodologies here.

Regional Context

On a regional scale, Dallas College operates in North Texas, specifically defined as the Metroplex Region (Higher Education Region 3) by the THECB. This vast area, starred in Figure 3, includes the large and more heavily populated counties of Dallas, Tarrant, Collin, and Denton, as well as fifteen smaller, surrounding counties.

Figure 3: Metroplex Higher Education Region (Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board Region 3)

Map of Texas showing the 10 higher education regions of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. A star marks the Metroplex Region in Northeast Texas, including the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. 

Note: Figure source http://www.60x30tx.com/goals/

Figure 4 depicts several years of postsecondary completions in the Metroplex Region, including certificates and degrees at the associate, bachelor’s, and master’s levels. The number of completions is trending upward from about 74,000 in 2016 toward a goal of nearly 137,000 in the year 2030. Reaching that goal would almost double the number of credentials granted over the 14-year period. Not only does the number of Metroplex completions increase each year from 2016-2019, but the Metroplex also constitutes a higher percentage of overall State completions in each of those years. By 2019, the Metroplex accounted for 24% of all postsecondary credentials in Texas at the certificate, associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degree levels. For comparison, the Gulf Coast region—which includes Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city—accounts for the next-highest proportion of Texas’s postsecondary credentials at 18%.

Figure 4: Certificate, Associate, Bachelor’s, and Master’s Completions in the Metroplex Region

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Note: Data Source: THECB, 2020.

DFW Metroplex

While the larger North Texas region shows a positive trend in granting credentials, placing local attainment levels within the broader regional context provides a more easily interpretable view of progress toward the goals of Building a Talent Strong Texas. The local data below focus only on the attainment level of associate degree or higher, excluding short-term credentials. This exclusion is due to short-term credentials being absent from the data for regional and metro areas in the collection instrument used by the American Community Survey (ACS). (Another possible solution could be to assume the rate of certificates at the state level [5% for 2014-2016 and 8.5% for 2017-2019] would stay the same at the regional level.) In this brief, “DFW Metroplex” refers to the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington metropolitan statistical area from U.S. Census materials, such as the ACS. Dallas County, in which Dallas College is located, is within the DFW Metroplex.

Dallas County is progressing toward attainment goals less quickly than Texas as a whole. In the years 2009-2011, the county and state attainment rates were relatively even; in the years since, the County has been making progress, but the gap between it and the state is widening. At the associate degree level or higher, Dallas County currently falls behind the state average by 2 percentage points (see Figure 5). However, the DFW Metroplex has steadily held higher rates than both the County and State. As of 2019, the Metroplex’s attainment at the associate degree level or higher exceeds that of Dallas County by 5.8 percentage points and that of the state by 3.7 percentage points. Further research will examine the effects of factors such as geographic mobility, corporate relocations, and regional wages to help understand why Dallas County lags behind surrounding areas in terms of a population with postsecondary credentials.

Figure 5: Dallas County, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Texas Populations Aged 25-64 with Associate Degree or Higher

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Note: Data Source: American Community Survey with Lumina Foundation estimate

Institutional Context

Dallas College is one of the largest community colleges in the nation and serves the higher education needs of the region. While the vast majority of its students come from Dallas County, a significant number of students enroll every year from further afield in the DFW Metroplex and surrounding counties. Over the past decade, the number of credentials awarded by Dallas College has grown dramatically. In 2009, Dallas College conferred 5,133 awards, including certificates and associate degrees. Ten years later, in 2019, the number of completions rose to 13,294—an increase of over two and a half times. The number of unduplicated completers at Dallas College has also risen substantially in recent years. In 2020, Dallas College had 10,601 individuals complete a certificate or associate degree. This represents an increase of more than 63% from the 6,470 completers in 2012. Even when excluding short-term certificates, the number of associate degrees completed rose almost 50% from 5,272 in 2012 to 7,847 in 2020. This growth in the number of graduates is notable but is not driving the same level of growth in attainment levels at the county level. While Dallas College has experienced a significant rise in credentials conferred, Dallas County has seen only marginal growth in the percentage of the population holding credentials. The DFW Metroplex, however, has seen strong growth in attainment rates at the associate degree level or higher. This is at least partially due to job growth in the surrounding area resulting from in-migration to the Metroplex.

Figure 6 compares the attainment rate in Texas directly to the number of credential completers at Dallas College. The graph shows that the growth of postsecondary credentials held by the population aged 25-64 in Texas follows a very similar trajectory to Dallas College’s growth in the number of completers. When looking at the year-over-year growth, Dallas College completers and attainment rate show similar trends. In 2020, Dallas College’s growth rate for completers was its lowest, declining 10.1%. In the same year, Texas experienced a similar decline, dropping 10.6% in the number of residents with postsecondary credentials from the previous year. This trend is most likely due to the effects of COVID-19. However, in 2019, Texas (+2.9%) and Dallas College (+2.8%) also experienced a slowing in year-over-year growth rates after a large increase from 2017 to 2018. Dallas College’s two years with the most year-over-year growth, 2018 (+24.3%) and 2014 (+17.9 %), coincide with Texas’s two largest increases in number of residents aged 25-64 holding postsecondary credentials (+11.0% and +17.5%).

Figure 6: Comparison: Dallas College Credential Completers and Texas Residents Aged 25-64 with Postsecondary Credentials

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Note: Data sources: Texas credentials – American Community Survey; Dallas College completers – IPEDS

Despite widespread hopeful projections that things would quickly return to pre-pandemic status, such a return does not seem to be true for postsecondary enrollment. While leaders in higher education have long known that a demographic cliff is coming due to a significant decrease in high school graduates from 2027-2037, they now contend with lingering pandemic effects before that drop. COVID-19 has forced many Americans to change their postsecondary plans--or even their entire view of the value of college (Conley & Massa, 2022).

Outlook and Recommendations

In order for Texas to reach its state attainment goals in the face changing public opinions regarding the value of credentials, institutions like Dallas College will need to continuously re-examine the return on investment they bring to the community. As one of the largest certificate- and degree-granting institutions in Texas, Dallas College plays an integral role in the state reaching the attainment goals set forth in Building a Talent Strong Texas. Therefore, the College is continuously examining the ways in which it can increase the number of community members earning meaningful credentials, help them do so with as little debt as possible, and lead them to workforce outcomes that positively affect both their individual and regional economic prosperity. To help inform institutional decisions on these issues, the current agenda of the Research Institute at Dallas College includes projects focused on program-level return on investment and equitable wage outcomes. The THECB Metroplex Region, in which Dallas College operates, is producing approximately a quarter of Texas’s postsecondary completions—more than any other THECB region. However, further examination of economic and workforce factors in Dallas County is warranted to illuminate ways in which to close the attainment gap between the County and the larger Metroplex and the State. Given that the area served by Dallas College is the most heavily populated urban center of the metroplex, it faces additional, unique challenges in educating its population. The recommendations below are a starting point for doing so effectively.

Educational Pipeline

Due to their close connections with area independent school districts (ISDs), community colleges are uniquely positioned to make a large impact on attainment levels (ESG et al., 2018). Dallas College collaborates closely with Dallas ISD and other area ISDs to engage students early in the educational pipeline. Dual-credit programs such as Early College High School and P-TECH high schools that can increase enrollment, persistence, and completion in postsecondary education—particularly among underserved student groups—will continue to be adapted to best meet the needs of the Dallas College community. While there is a growing body of literature on dual-credit and its successes, certificates and associate degrees are often not included in these analyses (Ison, 2022). As nearly all of the credentials Dallas College grants fall within those two categories, internal analyses of dual-credit’s role in completion are recommended. It is also recommended that the College and local ISDs collaborate on increased outreach and academic programming in even earlier years of the K-12 system.


There is no doubt that academic initiatives and programs are critical to successfully leading individuals to complete postsecondary credentials. However, local employment circumstances and prospects are often neglected in models of persistence (Reyes et al., 2019). Because of their missions tied to serving local workforce needs, community colleges have an ideal opportunity to simultaneously address the attainment and economic goals of the state plan Building a Talent Strong Texas. While Dallas College is making great strides in terms of increasing student completions, the institution and state must continue to increase all enrollment post-COVID-19 so graduates can enter the increasingly competitive local and regional workforce. This will take both an increase in college-going rate from high school and attracting more adult learners for reskilling, upskilling, and credential completion. To supplement in-migration of a credentialed workforce, Dallas College’s division of Workforce and Economic Development, as well as academic departments, will continue to develop community partnerships and programs focused on graduating students with the skills companies need.

Texas has recently attracted numerous major corporations, including Toyota, HP, Aeromax Industries, and Tesla, and it has created over 698,000 nonagricultural jobs between 2020 and 2021. This provides ample opportunity for a well-educated population to put postsecondary credentials to use. Simultaneously, the proliferation of new business has also led to a net in-migration of residents with postsecondary credentials. In 2019, the THECB, which oversees state attainment goals, estimated an increase of 21,000 residents with an associate degree or higher between 2014 and 2017 (2019). This “brain gain” in-migration is vital, yet it is only a portion of what is necessary to reach the ultimate goals of the strategic plan by 2030.

Robust Data Systems

Alignment and auditing of data from Texas residents’ records from the K-12 system, higher education, and the workforce is an existing recommendation of the Texas Student Success Council. Such an integrated set of data—led by the THECB, Texas Education Agency, and Texas Workforce Commission—would greatly enhance researchers’ and policymakers’ ability to gauge how well the state is achieving attainment goals and where areas for improvement lie. Once in place, Dallas College will augment its data analyses by integrating internal information, tailoring decision-making to most effectively meet the completion and workforce needs of its students.