Ike Plemons' higher education road has taken many turns and traveled through four different schools since he graduated from high school in 1996.
At the end of the 15-year journey, the Cleveland, Tenn., native finds himself still without a college degree, holding more than 140 college credit hours and owing $50,000 in student loans.
But despite all the challenges, getting a bachelor's degree is still a very important goal, he said.
"If given a choice, people would choose a career over a job because you have applicable skills you can take from employer to employer," said the 34-year-old who works selling fireworks. "Without a degree or specialized training, I'm limited."
There are more than 700,000 people in Tennessee who have completed some college without earning a degree, and experts say the state should focus on that group to achieve a national goal of 60 percent of adults having a college certificate or degree by 2025, a number set by the Lumina Foundation, a private foundation committed to enrolling and graduating more students from college.
As college completion rates continue to climb in other parts of the world, U.S. students need to hustle to improve the 38 percent of those who had two- or four-year degrees in 2010, according to a new report, "A Stronger Nation through Higher Education," released by Lumina.
The need for improvement is more glaring in Tennessee and Alabama, which languish in the bottom 10 states in college-degree attainment, according to the report, and Georgia is not much better, ranking 33rd out of the 50 states.
"Education is the only route to economic prosperity for both individuals and the nation. That should matter to policymakers. It should matter to business leaders. And it certainly should matter to our education leaders," said Jamie P. Merisotis, president and chief executive officer of Lumina, during a news conference in Washington, D.C.
In general, unemployment rates are much lower for those with some college, Lumina officials said.
"Everybody knows someone who is a recent college graduate struggling to find a job or who is underemployed; it's not an imaginary situation, but you have to look at data," said Dewayne Matthews, vice president for policy and strategy with the Lumina Foundation.
"The big picture is that the unemployment rate for recent college graduates, 23- and 24-year-olds, is around 8 or 9 percent," he said. "If you are a high school graduate, it's about 24 percent, and 36 percent for a high school dropout.
"The reality is that you are far better off if you have a college degree."
In Georgia, 57 percent of students starting a bachelor's degree program graduate within six years; in Tennessee, it's 56 percent, according to the Complete College Georgia plan. Only 11 percent starting an associate degree in the University System of Georgia graduate within three years, compared with 16 percent in Tennessee, the plan states.
And these days, companies are increasingly demanding that workers have higher skill levels to get a job.
"Everything is technological now," said Fannie Hewlett, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Chattanooga State Community College. "Businesses and the industry are telling us how they want employees to be able to think critically and solve problems."
Chattanooga State is providing workforce training for several companies, including Wacker and Volkswagen.
According to Lumina, having 60 percent of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials would mean:
ECONOMIC BENEFITS: Since 1975, average annual earnings of high school dropouts and high school graduates fell by 15 percent and 1 percent, respectively, while those of college graduates rose by 19 percent.
SOCIAL IMPACT: The U.S. can expect increases in volunteerism, voting, philanthropic giving and education levels for future generations as well as significant reductions in crime rates, poverty and health care costs.
Percentage of working-age Americans (ages 25-64) with college degrees in 2010
United States: 38.3 percent
Tennessee: 31.9 percent
• Bledsoe County: 12.1 percent
• Bradley County: 28 percent
• Grundy County: 10.9 percent
• Hamilton County: 37 percent
• McMinn County: 22 percent
• Meigs County: 13.8 percent
• Rhea County: 16.5 percent
• Sequatchie County: 19.6 percent
Georgia: 36 percent
• Catoosa County: 28.8 percent
• Chattooga County: 17.1 percent
• Dade County: 25.5 percent
• Floyd County: 24.9 percent
• Gordon County: 18.3 percent
• Murray County: 11.2 percent
• Walker County: 20.5 percent
• Whitfield County: 21.4 percent
Alabama: 31.5 percent
• Cherokee County: 17.5
• DeKalb County: 18.9 percent
• Jackson County: 19.8 percent
In Hamilton County, 37 percent of adults have at least an associate degree, higher than the state average, but well below counties such as Williamson near Nashville, where 62 percent have a degree, the Lumina Foundation report shows.
Even jobs in the carpet factories, where kids used to go straight from high school or even before finishing high school, now require some technical skills, including strong understanding of math, said Dalton Mayor David Pennington.
States across the nation, including Tennessee and Georgia, are implementing measures to increase college completion.
In 2010, the Complete College Tennessee Act passed, which includes a provision where funding for public colleges and schools depends more on retention and graduation rather than just enrollment.
And Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has announced a Complete College Georgia initiative that includes partnerships with K-12 schools and between the technical college and university systems. The goal is that 60 percent of Georgians will have some higher education degree, including certificates, by 2020.
"The only way this is going to be fulfilled is through partnerships," said Angela Harris, assistant vice president for enrollment services at Dalton State College.
About 13 percent of Dalton State's students are Hispanic. More than half of the school's new students last fall were first-generation college students, and the majority received need-based aid -- all groups that the Lumina Foundation says are essential to reach the nation's goal.
But there's still a long way to go.
More than 700,000 additional degrees are required to meet workforce needs in 2025 in Tennessee and close to a million in Georgia, according to the Lumina Foundation.
"We are a long way from building a robust system truly responsive to employer demand," said Tony Carnevalex, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
The No. 1 indicator of whether a child goes to college is whether his parents went to college, said Pennington.
"Obviously, when you have such low educational achievement in the community, that's a tough cycle to break," he said.
But the bigger issue is to commit to children to going to college from an earlier age, he said.
"We have so many kids who are not on grade level and they continue to fall farther and farther behind," he added.
Only 21 percent of Whitfield County's adults, ages 25 to 64, have at least an associate degree, according to the Lumina data.
"As a state and as a community, we are not concentrating on the early years and that's the key," he said.
The push for college completion comes at a time of soaring tuition rates and budget cuts for colleges and universities across the nation. For instance, for fiscal 2012, the University of Tennessee system received 25 percent less in state appropriations than in 2008.
At area universities, tuition has increased by 75 percent at Dalton State and by more than 100 percent at Chattanooga State in the past decade.
The United States, once a world leader in the proportion of young adults holding a college degree, now lags behind 14 other developed nations, including South Korea, Ireland, Australia and Canada. The level of about 40 percent of Americans completing college was reached in the '70s and hasn't changed since, said Lumina's Matthews.
"At that time that was the highest level in the world; we had the best educated population, even into the '90s," he said.
The fact that the rate has remained essentially the same has a lot to do with people's attitudes about college, he said.
"We seem to have this attitude that the job of a college education is to sort out the winners," he said, "but we've got an economy that demands more and more people to have the skills that, in the past, only a few people got and people are starting to get the message."
For his part, Plemons said, it was ingrained in him that education always paid off.
"Ever since I was in school, they told you that if you stay in school and did your best, the education alone was worth it," he said.
And maybe next fall he'll be able to take the last class he needs to get an associate degree in art. But that may be delayed because he just bought a house and has a baby on the way.
"It's hard to say," he said.