Connecticut Falling Behind in Higher Education


Latest study highlights the urgency of closing the state’s education achievement gap

By Bill DeRosa

In 2000, 42.5% of Connecticut residents age 25-34 had an associate’s degree or higher. By 2009, that number had grown by 3.2 percentage points to 45.7%, giving Connecticut a seventh-place ranking among the states in higher-education attainment.

All good news, right? Actually, those numbers are cause for concern.

Connecticut’s position at number seven represents a drop of three places since 2000 and seven places since 1990. And despite greater numbers of residents earning postsecondary credentials, Connecticut is not keeping pace with leading states in degrees being awarded. Our growth rate ranks last among our New England neighbors and a dismal 34th nationally. New York, with a gain of 6.6 percentage points since 2000, occupies the top spot and is gaining ground at more than twice Connecticut’s pace.

Predictions Coming True?

The above figures are based on an analysis by the Connecticut Department of Higher Education (DHE) of Census and American Community Survey data. According to the DHE, the numbers confirm projections made five years ago in a report by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation called New England 2020.

In that study, researchers predicted that by the year 2020, “all six New England states (with the possible exception of New Hampshire) will have witnessed a measurable drop in the percentage of their young population holding a bachelor’s degree or higher.”

Connecticut was expected to see one of the worst declines in the region, from 34% in 1993 to 30.5% in 2020, with each percentage point representing a loss of many thousands of young educated workers.

The investigators concluded that the two most important contributors to the predicted decline would be an outflow of native residents and the persistence of certain educational performance gaps.

Connecticut has not yet seen the drop forecasted by New England 2020 (currently, 38.7% of young adults in the state hold a bachelor’s degree or higher), but the data cited by the DHE suggest that we are heading in that direction.

“The warning signs have become a troubling reality,” said Connecticut Commissioner of Higher Education Michael P. Meotti in a Jan. 19 presentation to the Board of Governors for Higher Education in Hartford. “In 1990, we were the top state in education attainment; we then dropped to fourth place in 2000, and we now find our leadership position further eroding compared to states of similar size and aspirations like Massachusetts, Maryland, and New Jersey. We are unquestionably falling behind.”

Slipping State by State

In the percentage of young adults with an associate’s degree or higher, Connecticut (45.7%) now ranks behind Massachusetts (53.9%), Minnesota (49.6%), New York (48.9%), North Dakota (48.5%), New Jersey (46.4%), and New Hampshire (46.2%). Rounding out the top 10 are Maryland (45.3%), Vermont (44.7%), and Iowa (44.5%).

When it comes to the percentage of residents age 25-34 with bachelor’s degrees, Connecticut has slipped from second to fourth nationally since 2000. (The attainment of graduate or professional degrees is the one bright spot in the latest data, which shows Connecticut moving up one place: from fourth to third: since 2000.)

Meotti points out that the salient issue is not the number of students we’re educating but rather “that we are not moving fast enough to stay ahead of our competitors. These findings make the need to strengthen college readiness, retention, and graduation all the more urgent. Doing more of the same isn’t going to get us ahead.”

Implications and Solutions

What does the state’s waning competitiveness in higher education mean for the future? “The consequences [for] our economic and personal success cannot be overstated,” said Meotti.

New England 2020 reached the same conclusion in 2006. At the time the report was released, coauthor Stephen Coelen of UConn’s Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis predicted that “if the six New England states prove unable to significantly raise their current levels of educational access and attainment, the region will witness a decline in the quality of its workforce and find itself in serious economic jeopardy.”

How can the state avoid that outcome? Clearly, says CBIA President and CEO John Rathgeber, a key step is to close the state’s huge education achievement gap: the disparity in academic performance that separates low-income and minority students from others: so that more students leave high school prepared to succeed in college. In 2010, Rathgeber served on the bipartisan Connecticut Commission on Educational Achievement, a group charged with investigating the causes of: and recommending ways to close: the state’s achievement gap.

“We urge the governor and state legislature to move forward with the commission’s recommendations,” he says. “They are critical to giving all students the skills they need to be productive citizens and lead our economy.”

To read the commission’s recommendations, go to

For updates on CBIA’s education and workforce development programs, visit

Bill DeRosa is editor of CBIA News. He can be reached at

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