The Cornerstone: Building an American Public Policy for Educational Attainment and Success in the Labor Market
In the United States, the belief that higher education is the key to success in the labor market is “an article of faith” (Covaleskie, 2110, p.1). Although this belief is echoed by policymakers and educators alike, the requirements for success in the workforce shift based on changing industrial needs, technological advancements, war, changes in natural resources and social attitudes toward education (Ochsner & Solomon, 1979). Given our rapidly changing job market and global economy, it comes as no surprise America’s education policy has become increasingly concerned with workforce development over the last 30 years. Preparing students for gainful employment in a competitive marketplace is not just one of many desired outcomes; it is a central charge for American schools.
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This article is an excerpt from The Cornerstone: Building an American Public Policy for Educational Attainment and Success in the Labor Market, available in its entirety here. It is part of a series of articles forthcoming in Wyoming Labor Force Trends on the intersection of higher education and education and workforce policy in the United States.
The 1983 report of President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE), A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, successfully rooted the language of workforce development into the national discussion on education. Nation did more than introduce the lexicon of workforce development into education policy, it sought, in part, to answer the question: what is school for? David Pierpont Gardner and the NCEE argue in Nation that one goal of education reform should be the creation of a “Learning Society,” grounded in “the idea that education is important not only because of what it contributes to one’s career goals but also because of the value it adds to the general quality of one’s life” (1983, p. 22). The value education adds to one’s life, while given theoretical mention in Nation, is not the cornerstone for the reform suggested in the report. Nation is concerned with human capital, competition, and education as a mechanism for attaining “the mature and informed judgment needed to secure gainful employment” (p. 16). The reason for the NCEE’s concern was the rise of global competition, and America’s uncertain future as an economic superpower. The report states “the time is long past when America’s destiny was assured simply by an abundance of natural resources…we live among determined, well-educated, and strongly motivated competitors” (p. 14). The central “risk” in Nation is not, as the report claims, that America may drown in a “rising tide of mediocrity,” but that the rest of the world has learned how to swim (p. 1).
The findings of Nation, namely that the academic performance of students in American high schools was dismal, framed the national dialog that our public schools were failing to produce competitive workers, and that this failure would undermine America’s position of economic dominance. One problem with tasking schools with workforce development lies in the fact that students graduating from high school or college simply do not face the same job market from generation to generation. From World War II to 1965, there was a steady demand for college-educated workers in the United States (Ochsner & Solomon, 1979). By the late 1960s, some professions like elementary school teaching had already balanced supply with demand. Even so, the number of college graduates increased steadily. From 1950 to 1970, the number of college-educated workers quadrupled, from seven million to 28 million (Jaffe & Froomkin, 1978). Today, many of those graduating from college find themselves un- or under-employed (Vedder, Denhart, & Robe, 2013). Educational attainment, alone, it seems, is not enough to ensure labor market success in America.
College Tuition vs. Future Earnings for Graduates
According to the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (2013), the United States now produces far more graduates with a Bachelor’s degree than are needed in the labor market. Data from 2010 show that of the 41.7 million working college graduates, 37% held jobs requiring a high-school diploma or less (Vedder, Denhart, & Robe, 2013). The “payoff” for a college degree seems increasingly elusive, as more new graduates find themselves un- or underemployed. Even before the Great Recession, Herbert (1999) found college students becoming “intensely job- and income-oriented,” and claimed many understood “technical specialization,” as the main requirement for entry-level positions in the workforce. Considering the large number of underemployed graduates, one must wonder how well our universities are meeting the criteria of technical specialization, and if meeting those criteria necessitates a four-year degree.
Herbert claims students’ attitudes toward higher education are in large part shaping the phenomenon of a “market-driven university,” where the student-patron demands a jobs-oriented curriculum (1999). Vedder, Denhart, and Robe take a slightly less optimistic view of the patron’s power to determine curriculum, and predict enrollments in four-year programs will continue to rise despite underemployment of college graduates in the current labor market (2013). A continued rise in the number of college graduates with bachelor’s degrees in an already saturated job market might eventually become self-correcting, as new graduates become discouraged with the limited career opportunities available. Until that time, however, guidance counselors and university enrollment personnel continue to paint an “overly rosy” picture of career opportunities and earning potentials for college students (p. 21).
Rather than address the labor market/skills gap existing in many university curriculums, institutions continue to “raise the credential bar,” launching PhD programs targeted at occupations historically needing no more than an associate’s degree. Capella University recently launched an online PhD specialization in nursing education, which aligns with the National League of Nursing Competencies (2008). The PhD specialization aims at filling the shortage of nursing faculty in the United States. Despite the shortage of faculty, the National Advisory Council on Nurse Education and Practice sought to “increase the percent of baccalaureate (BSN) prepared nurses in the workforce to at least two-thirds by 2010” (Graf, 2006). This push for an increase in BSN prepared nurses came at a time when 37% of the working nurses and 60% of new nursing graduates were associate’s-degree prepared. Further findings by Graf demonstrated that after projecting the lifetime earnings “for more than half of the AND-to-BSN graduates, the costs of education were greater than the salary increase” (p. 1).
Younger nurses were more likely to have a higher rate of return on a bachelor’s degree, but for older nurses considering the BSN, the cost of the degree far outweighed future earnings. Graf’s studies illustrate the importance of determining whether a student’s degree path will yield a positive return on investment in the labor market.
In light of rising enrollments, the need for a skilled workforce, and the underemployment of young graduates, the role of workforce development in education begs further examination. Education and training have long been touted as the primary mechanisms for labor market success, but efforts to promote opportunity have resulted in raising the level of educational attainment without addressing the skills gaps found in the workforce. The America Competes Act and other policies seek to bridge the gap between educational attainment and the skills needed for labor market success, but skills required for success shift rapidly in a technology-driven climate.
The logical question following such legislation is whether policymakers, educational institutions, and students have enough information about the skills needed for success in today’s shifting labor market. As higher education enrollments and students’ costs continue to increase, states will need a method to determine which skills or credentials are important to labor market success. Because skills and qualifications demanded by the labor market change, they need to be measured longitudinally – doing so gives states the ability to pinpoint constants in an ever-changing stream of variables.
The United States has long recognized the importance of data in improving our education and workforce development systems, and has collected the data for decades. The federal government relies on data collection to track the results of its substantial investments in the education system. Dr. Mark Schneider, vice president of the American Institute for Research, pointed out in congressional testimony that for the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in linking student records to unemployment insurance data, the number of states that have made the data public “is close to zero” (Assessing College Data , 2012). Wyoming, because of its access to administrative databases outside the state, has the opportunity to improve education and workforce data – and move meaningful data into the public sphere. Wyoming is in the unique position to develop the products that will facilitate evidence-based decision making within its education and workforce development programs – today, and in the future.
Michele Holmes can be reached at email@example.com.
Assessing College Data: Helping to Provide Valuable Information to Students, Institutions, and Taxpayers: Hearing before the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training of the Education and the Workforce Committee, 112th Cong. 2 (2012).
Covaleskie, J. F. (2010). Educational attainment and economic inequality: What schools cannot do. Journal of Thought, 45(1), 83-96,6. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/816806757?accountid=29653
Graf, C. M. (2006). ADN to BSN: Lessons from human capital theory. Nursing Economics 24(3), 135-41, 123; quiz 142. Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/mv36jl2
Herbert, K. (1999). The classics in america at 2000. Classical Bulletin, 75(2), 123-146. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/222301792?accountid=29653
Jaffe, A. J. and Froomkin, J. (June, 1978). Occupational opportunities for college-educated workers, 1950-1975. Monthly Labor Review.
National Commission on Excellence in Education. 1983. A Nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
Ochsner, N. L., & Solomon, L. C. (1979). Forecasting the labor market for highly educated workers. The Review of Higher Education, 2(2), 34. Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/m9snbte
Vedder, R., Denhart, C., & Robe, J. (2013). Why are recent college graduates underemployed? University enrollments and labor-market realities. Center for College Affordability and Productivity. Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/lbg3ey6