By on 3.7.19 in Education

What is “postsecondary attainment”?

This post was co-authored with the John M. Belk Endowment.

School administrators, policy analysts, and government officials have begun using the term “postsecondary attainment” when discussing successful educational outcomes. What does this mean?

Postsecondary refers to education or training beyond high school. Attainment means the completion of a postsecondary degree or nondegree credential. Postsecondary attainment is not a one-size-fits-all concept. It includes postsecondary degrees, such as associate or bachelor’s degrees, awarded by a college or university, as well as nondegree credentials. There are three main categories of nondegree credentials:

    • Educational institutions also award postsecondary educational certificates and diplomas to students who complete a specific program of study. In general, they take less time to complete than a degree and are used to learn new skills or update existing skills in a field.Academic credits earned through a certificate or diploma can typically be applied towards a future degree.


    • Industry certifications are a signal to employers that an individual is proficient in a particular job or skill. They are usually awarded by a third-party, standard-setting organization after an individual successfully completes an assessment process.


  • Licenses are occupational credentials awarded by a government agency. They grant the license holder the legal authority to do a specific job based on the fulfillment of pre-determined criteria (typically some combination of degree or credential attainment, certifications, exams, apprenticeship programs, or work experience).When we talk about postsecondary attainment, we often focus our conversations on the degrees or credentials awarded by colleges and universities. This reflects a lack of high-quality data on nondegree credential attainment outside of the collegiate environment. Because licenses and certifications are granted by third-parties—such as an independent agency or board—and not an educational institution, they are harder to track than the degrees and nondegree credentials awarded by educational institutions.Additionally, while educational institutions provide data on nondegree certificates and diplomas, these details are not yet regularly reported in large-scale population surveys, such as the American Community Survey. In most existing surveys, nondegree credential holders without a postsecondary degree are categorized as having attained “some college, no degree.” This category includes credential holders as well as students who left college without completing a course of study. National data on the share of U.S. adults with a postsecondary nondegree credential first became available in 2014; this type of data is not yet regularly available for states or counties.Next up: in-migration and its role in North Carolina’s current attainment rate.Subscribe to our mailing list to stay up-to-date with our NC education pipeline research.

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