Debating How Much Education Society Really Needs

by Watson Scott Swail, Ed.D., President, Educational Policy Institute

The Hechinger Report posted an article by Michael Lawrence Collins last week on whether college is worth it. Collins wrote that students need to “think like investors.” Well, he’s right. They should. But would you put your money on a 17-18-year old investor? Not me. We wouldn’t because they haven’t learned the requisite skills to made prudent decisions about the future, let alone the future of a world as volatile as ours is. Sure, people like to say that people will have seven careers before they die. Um. Not true, mostly. For blue collar works, perhaps. For white collar, the issue is how you define “career.” People move from job to job more than they used to, but are they doing different work? If you are a financial type and work at a fashion house then move to an industrial center, are you doing different work? No. Just a different address in most cases.

The question for many of those that do change occupations is whether their changes are due to their lack of a “higher education,” or because they do not possess the requisite skills to earn a stable living in a volatile world? The common perception, and a perception voiced in Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, is that high school students do not possess the attributes for this and future workforce because many of the future jobs will require postsecondary education.

However, when I review data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), I see a different trend occurring away from postsecondary education. For those that still latch on to the reality that people with high levels of postsecondary education earn more, that remains true. But one must consistently ask this question: is it because of the skill set those graduates possess that allows them to earn more? Or is it the credential—the piece of parchment—that business and industry looks for. I think it is mostly the latter, with exceptions for professional enterprises, such as accounting and lawyering and such.

As the following data illustrate, half of all job growth between 2016 and 2026 will require less than a postsecondary credential. To be accurate, 44 percent of the jobs will require a high school degree (or less). Only six percent will require either a BA or “some college.” That is quite a different perspective, isn’t it? This is only about job growth, however, representing approximately 19 million “occupational openings” between 2016 and 2026, defined as openings created by people leaving jobs or new jobs created. Half of these jobs will reside in 39 occupational classification—of 819 in total. Only 39.

EPI will be releasing a monograph with a more intense review in the near future, but for this piece, let’s look at some of the BLS data focusing on growth.

Exhibit 1. Occupational Openings and Wages between 2016 and 2026, by Education Level, Top Quartile.


Exhibit 1 focuses on the top quartile of job growth. Out of those 819 jobs, only 10 jobs account for the total occupational growth. The major standout here is that none of these jobs require a postsecondary certificate, diploma, or degree. Not one. These jobs represent 4.7 million jobs to be available for workers by 2026. Also important to note is that the average income of these jobs is just $23,269. Think of that for a moment. The poverty line for a family of four is almost at that number ($24,600). To put this in perspective, this amount is equivalent to about $10.60 an hour. But the reality is that people at this earning level are likely not to work 40 hours a week, because employers have reduced the hours for many workers below 35 hours/week to reduce or even eliminate benefits.

Here is the second highest quartile of job growth.

Exhibit 2. Occupational Openings and Wages between 2016 and 2026, by Education Level, Second-Highest Quartile.


Much more diversity in type of jobs here. This group also represents 4.7 million jobs, but the educational level creeps up as does the salary. Here, the average income is $38,243, significantly higher than the top growth quartile. However, even in this quartile, 20 of the 29 jobs do not require anything beyond a high school diploma; 2 require a postsecondary “non degree”; 5 a bachelor’s degree; and 2 “some college.”

As previously stated, of the top 50 percent of job growth by 2026, via 39 of 819 total job classes, as high as 44 percent of these jobs will require only a high school degree (or less).

Let us be reminded: these data do not say that college doesn’t matter. It does. Greatly. These are only job growth statistics. In our monograph we will also explore total jobs. Good to note, however, is that of the 167 million expected jobs in 2026, two thirds will be represented by 100 of the 819 job classifications. Breaking down this group, 67 percent of these jobs will require high school or less. Ten percent will require an associate’s degree or less. Twenty percent a bachelor’s degree. And two percent a doctoral or professional degree. Only one third will require a postsecondary credential, and only 22 percent a BA or higher.

The future economy does not necessarily jive with projections in future jobs. Job growth, largely from companies that are working to greatly lower costs and rework their employment conditions so they can pay little or no benefits, leans toward little rather than large. Companies will higher college grads for jobs that they think require college grads. But they will hire the lowest common denominator for everything else. These statistics illustrate this cleanly. Not adjusted here are lost jobs that will be lost to increased robotization, something that Elon Musk of Tesla/SpaceX says will be a major issue in the future. The future of Uber isn’t more Uber drivers. It is no Uber drivers. The future of trucking isn’t more drivers. It is to replace them with Artificial Intelligence. Think not? Both driverless cars and trucks are being tested around the country and states and localities are passing new laws in favor of these vehicles. While the President wants to bring back manufacturing to the US, most manufacturers are pushing the de-humanization of the assembly line. What does this mean? These numbers are likely the positive spin on the future. It will likely be worse, and perhaps much worse.

I didn’t dig down into the entire 819 classifications, but I did go down to the 75th percentile of growth. What I found was not promising. Of the 121 total jobs that make up the top 75 percent of job growth by 2026, 70 percent did not require a postsecondary credential of any type. None. Nine percent required either a postsecondary non-degree or some college, 18 percent a BA, 2 percent a graduate degree, and 2 percent an associate’s degree. That makes 22 percent or roughly 1 in 5, required a college degree of any type.

Blame it on what you want, but these data buttress what I’ve said for years: the majority of future jobs will not require a postsecondary degree, especially a bachelor’s degree. If we take this discussion further and start talking skill sets, I am firm in arguing that our employers use credential as short hand for skills, and that could not be further from the truth. Earning a degree means something. It means a lot. But it says little, depending on discipline, on what skills someone has earned during their degree program. A 2006 study by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) found that only 38 percent of four-year graduates and 23 percent of two-year graduates were “proficient” in Prose (reading comprehension), and only 34 percent of four-year graduates and 18 percent of two-year graduates were proficient in quantitative skills. College graduates were much higher than non-college graduates, but the “skill” level, with regard to quantitative and qualitative reasoning is certainly an underachievement.

This is a complex topic, to be fair. We will be looking at this in depth in the very near future and producing more information for release. However, these data come with a warning that we should (a) be very mindful of the jobs that are likely to be available in the future and how that matches with our higher education system; and (b) we should do a much better job of anticipating these shifts and retool our higher education to provide skill sets that will propel the nation forward. If we do the latter, then the estimates provided are likely to shift, too.

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