Although the state has made strides in its efforts to boost the number of residents with college degrees, Oklahoma still has a long way to go, according to a new report.
The nonprofit Lumina Foundation released its report “A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education” last week. Oklahoma ranks 42nd in the nation in terms of degree completion, according to the report
According to the report, 33 percent of Oklahoma adults ages 25-64 held a college degree in 2011, the most recent year for which data were available.
Although that figure places Oklahoma behind the national average, it was an improvement over 2009, when 31.7 percent of Oklahoma adults held a college degree.
The group hopes to see 60 percent of Americans hold postsecondary degrees, certifications or other credentials by 2025, and estimates that 57 percent of all Oklahoma jobs will require some form of education beyond high school by 2018.
The study is based in data from 2011, the same year that higher education officials launched Oklahoma's Complete College America campaign, a 12-year initiative that seeks to boost the number of college degrees and professional certificates Oklahoma awards each year.
Since then, higher education officials have seen success in ramping up the number of degrees the state awards. Together, Oklahoma's public and private colleges and universities awarded nearly 3,000 more degrees last year than the previous year, topping the state's annual goal of awarding 1,700 more degrees and vocational certificates.
During a meeting last month, Oklahoma higher education Chancellor Glen Johnson told the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education that higher education officials are committed to continuing that trend over the next decade. Johnson acknowledged that the 1,700-degree target would likely be more difficult to reach as the campaign progresses.
A key way Oklahoma could make progress in its degree completion efforts is by recruiting older students who have some college credit but haven't completed their degrees, said Dewayne Matthews, the Lumina Foundation's vice president of policy and strategy.
Working with older students is critical for nearly any state that hopes to see 60 percent of its residents hold college degrees, Matthews said. Most states don't have enough graduating high school students to meet that mark, he said, so returning adult students are as important as traditional students.
In Oklahoma, about 25 percent of adults age 25 to 64 have some college credit but no degree, he said. That comes to about 482,000 potential college students, he said.
“We think that's an excellent place to begin,” he said.
Oklahoma higher education officials are already working to recruit those students. Reach Higher, an Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education program, works with adult students who attended college but dropped out before finishing their degree. The program offers education options tailored to working adults, including flexible schedules and online course options.
Oklahoma's program is a good example of how to reach adults who have some college credit but no degree, Matthews said. Most of those students want to complete their degrees, he said, but they don't see college as an option because of family and work commitments.
But even with flexible course schedules and online classes, many of the people in that category still won't come back to finish their degrees, Matthews said. Realistically, about 10 percent of the people higher education officials identify as possible returning students will actually return to finish their degrees, he said.
“It's not possible to get all of them back,” Matthews said. “The longer they stay out, the harder it becomes.”