By Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scientist, Educational Policy Institute
I keep a TV on in the office on most days, switching channels depending on the discussion at hand, typically leaving it in mute and sometimes switching to the NHL Channel for a few minutes. Everyone has their vices. Mine are politics and hockey. Yesterday, I was watching to Ali Velshi, a sharp-as-a-tack Toronto Boy who, along with TV-partner Stephanie Ruhle, know a whole lot about economics. Diane Swonk, a chief economist with Grant Thornton, a multi-national accounting firm, is a regular guest. This is what she had to say :
“People have the audacity to say we have too many educated people out there and there are too many BAs running around and they shouldn’t have gotten these degrees. Actually, that’s not right. We are now about 30 percent people getting an education. That is lower than our international counterparts. And all of the increase in the educational attainment since the 1950s is coming from Women getting more degrees. Of course, they are being discouraged into going into the very areas that pay the most and need the most of any kind of mathematical background. There is a full body of economic research on this. So, we aren’t training enough people and not educating enough people and we are really losing ground to our peers the world over. It is why we need more educated immigrants that are willing to come here but also speaks to the fact that we no longer… If you are poor and the smartest in a poor area your chance of going to college is much less than it was several decades ago and even a decade ago than if you are the dumbest kid in the richest area.
Ms. Swonk spoke quickly and rolled over several issues in a matter of minutes. I was taken back by her comments in large part due to the inaccuracies of her discussion. I preface my comments reminding people that I have worked my entire career helping remove barriers to higher education, with special focus on low-income and minority students. I developed the Geometric Framework for Student Retention and have written extensively on the topic in professional journals and other vehicles. My constant vision is for a highly-educated society in America and every other country in the world. Raise all boats and lower no ceilings. And, while we’re at it, break through the glass ceilings that create inequities for women in particular. I mention this because there are some that suggest I am on not on the access wagon because I don’t quote the status quo. And I don’t because I think the status quo is wrong about some of the access agenda. Let’s move on. We must be careful in definitions. When I say highly educated, I mean highly skilled. Not highly credentialed. We’ll discuss this more in a moment. The bottom line is that I am fatigued by the rhetoric espoused by credentialed experts about education and the workforce. It can be very damaging when someone of status throws a few unresearched and unsubstantiated claims about the status of education in this nation. They throw out a few tired-old statistics that only serve to cement an ideal in peoples’ collective heads about what ails society. I find this behavior borderline egregious. Let me take a few moments to unpack Ms. Swonk’s statements. “People have the audacity to say we have too many educated people out there and there are too many BAs running around and they shouldn’t have gotten these degrees.” I guess I am audacious, and I will correct people on these issues whenever possible. Some of these issues are complex so let us parse out what we can. First, a major problem we have with our workforce is that employers use credentials as filters for employment rather than skills. A great assumption is that a BA suggests a certain level of skills and knowledge. True, it evinces a certain level of proficiency. But we don’t know how proficient a graduate is because there is no objective measure. Many BA degrees are a hodgepodge of course work that does not always string together. We assume that because people have four or more years of education that they are much better off and prepared. In most cases, I support this assumption. However, for many college graduates, this is simply not the case. Some of our graduates—let alone those that go to college for years and fail to graduate—have 4, 5, or 6 years of opportunity cost lost in time and we still don’t know what they have learned. We understand the learning in the professions because learning is confirmed through criterion- and norm-referenced tests that require students to hit minimum standards in order to move forward. Think MCAT; LSAT; GRE; the CPA exam. Even the military has the ASVAB. In fact, there are four states that do not require a law degree in order to train because they figure that if you can pass the bar, you can be a lawyer. Hard to argue. Further, I’ve taught college seniors before who did not possess the base understanding of grammar, sentence structure, and spelling. They could not write cogent papers nor understand what cogent means. They were incapable of putting their thoughts together in any meaningful way, but they still received a bachelor’s degree. And then many of them started teaching our youth in the school systems. The mind boggles. This is anecdotal, which is also dangerous. But it still boggles. Many of the jobs filled by BA grads employ basic skills that a high school graduate used to do and could easily do now. In fact, I’ll posit that most 8th grade graduates could fill these positions if not for the maturity issue, which is a critical skill in most jobs. We need workers who are mature enough to handle the job, and it follows that the 4-6 years of college is the time of ripening for students. And the skills? Most of the new jobs being created do not require a college degree of any kind. Food services and home health care are the fastest growing areas in our economy. Engineering? Nope. Business? Nope. In fact, only 34 percent of future jobs require any college, with only 18 percent requiring the skills apparently embedded in a BA and only 5 percent of jobs will require a graduate or professional degree. These data are from the US Department of Labor and you can read more in this EPIGraph. By the way, four years after graduating with a BA, 20 percent of graduates are still unemployed. In total, 69 percent are fully employed while 11 percent are working and going to school for a “higher” level of education (see this EPIGraph). And this EPIGraph illustrates the massive underemployment of college graduates, which illustrates that STEM grads are the least underemployed but non-STEM areas are highly underemployed. Also, I strongly encourage you to read this Swail Letter from 2018 on underemployment with 2018 data from Burning Glass Technologies and Strada Institute for the Future of Work. The thesis here is simple: if we need that many more BAs, why are so many graduates either unemployed or underemployed? Check out these Swail Letters for additional information:
“We are now about 30 percent people getting an education. That is lower than our international counterparts.” I have no idea where this data blip comes from. Perhaps 30 percent means the 30 percent that receive a BA or higher, not just a college diploma or degree. Data clearly and accurately illustrate that 72 percent of 9th grade students end up in postsecondary education within six years (check our chart here). As well, data from Lumina Foundation, using data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, suggest that 45.8 percent of adults between the ages 25-64 have earned some credential (see here). Another 16.3 percent have some college but no credential. With regard to our international counterparts, it is important to note that we aren’t falling behind. We’ve been ahead for so long that the other countries are finally catching up, with some surpassing us. It is true that we are a bit whiplashed by the international community on test scores in K12 (see here). However, with regard to tertiary attainment, the US does quite well, thank you very much. In fact, the US ranks 7th in the world for those between the ages of 25-64 with at least a two-year diploma or degree. For the 25-34 age group, we are 15th. So, are we falling behind? Sure, you can argue that, but the more accurate and appropriate statement is that the rest of the world is catching up. There is one critical point to make that most people omit in these discussions: the US is the most diverse country in the world with respect to education and workforce. The 14 countries who are ahead of us in the 25-34 age group include some of the most homogenous societies in the world. South Korea (number 1), Japan, Russia, Norway, Israel, Sweden, to name a few. Several of these countries have ethnic diversity in the single digits, compared to the US, which is currently 27 percent non-White and is projected to be minority-white by 2045. Something should be said about the US having such a diverse education system and still doing so well. We provide more higher education options for people from all income groups with enormous support for low-income students through Pell and other programs, including institutional aid. Other countries aren’t so generous. Do we do well enough? Never. But comparatively speaking, we do incredibly well. See this week’s EPIGraph for data on these issues. “And all of the increase in the educational attainment since the 1950s is coming from Women getting more degrees.” This statement is correct to a degree only because more women started going to college and more women are now graduating from college. This, like the international comparative above, is all about “catch up.” Higher education now looks like US society, at least by gender, depending how one slices it. Fifty-six percent of entering college students are women; 57 percent of BA grads are women; and 60 percent of graduate students are women. In fact, some now argue that we have a male problem in postsecondary education, a statistic that is more dramatic by race/ethnic group, where Black males lag far behind Black females in both participation and completion. This EPIGraph illustrates the BA graduation rate data by gender and race/ethnicity and shows that women tend to graduate at a rate 5-7 percent higher than men. This significant graphic by the Pew Research Center shows how women now have a massive advantage in college-going matriculation compared to prior years, regardless of race/ethnic group. “Of course, they (women) are being discouraged into going into the very areas that pay the most and need the most of any kind of mathematical background. There is a full body of economic research on this.” There has been a historical pattern among women of not pursuing STEM and business careers compared to men, especially in “hard” sciences, such as engineering. Renown researcher Elaine Seymour of the University of Colorado, who was an advisor on my doctoral dissertation on this very issue, conducted decades of critical research on women in STEM fields. A significant publication includes 1995’s The Loss of Women from Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Undergraduate Majors: An Explanatory Account. The gaps between men and women remain large, depending on how we look at it. Engineering, for instance, illustrates the seemingly intractable gap by gender, where men continue to make up 80 percent of undergraduate degrees and 76 percent of doctoral degrees. Women make up 42 percent of mathematics majors and 40 percent of the physical sciences. Recent analysis suggests that there are several reasons for the STEM gender gap. One suggestion is that, because girls have better basic language abilities at a young age, they gravitate to reading as a preference and choose education pathways and interests more aligned with reading. Another finds that boys prefer science-based courses and girls reading-based courses from an early age. The conclusion is that in countries that allow women to choose, they tend to choose non-STEM fields. As reported in the Atlantic in February 2018: “The upshot of this research is neither especially feminist nor especially sad: It’s not that gender equality discourages girls from pursuing science. It’s that it allows them not to if they’re not interested.” STEM isn’t the only area for a well-paying job, but it is a consistent one. Thus, a gender gap would have an economic impact on women in the workforce. Interesting to note, women do comprise 47 percent of all business BA degrees and 44 percent of doctoral degrees. Women are gaining strength in the business world, but there is a lot of headroom left to level the playing field. Regarding the issue of mathematics, we over-emphasize the importance of math in the job market. Only 1 in 20 workers use advanced mathematics according to The Atlantic. (Check out this Swail Letter). Their analysis suggests that the workers that use the most high-level math are the upper level blue collar worker; those that do craft and repair work including skilled construction trades and mechanics. Them and the serious Ph.D. mathematicians and engineers. Again, this represents five percent of the workforce. Pushing more people into mathematics is not only not the answer but simply unnecessary. For me? I’m a highly trained mathematics major with a statistics background. I am a researcher. But I use only basic mathematics for almost all my work and rarely use anything beyond Pythagoras, which I use mostly for house projects when I need to know the length of “C.” “So, we aren’t training enough people and not educating enough people and we are really losing ground to our peers the world over.” Again, the United States appears to be doing just fine in training and educating enough people for the workforce. We are not losing ground. Other countries are playing catch up. Altogether, the big picture is that this is good for the world. “It is why we need more educated immigrants that are willing to come here but also speaks to the fact that we no longer… If you are poor and the smartest in a poor area your chance of going to college is much less than it was several decades ago and even a decade ago than if you are the dumbest kid in the richest area.” This is a difficult piece to unpack. The H-1B visa issue is simply about jobs that require the most precisely educated personnel of which we likely do not create enough. But understand: the US has always attracted, and sometimes taken, the best of the best. That’s how we became the best as a nation of immigrants. Congress mandates a cap of 65,000 H-1B visas each year. These are defined as specialized visas that allow foreign workers a temporary work status in special occupations of need. These visas are for three years and can be renewed once, for a total of six years. Certainly, in the United States, 65,000 visas a year, which, as stated, are rotating, represents 0.05 percent, or 1 in 2,000 jobs. Surely not a die-on-your-sword issue for American business and industry. Regarding her declaration of poor vs. affluent, there is some truth to it, but it is painted with too broad a brush to be meaningful. First, college enrollment has climbed for all income groups, and especially low-income youth, in the past decade. See Forbes magazine’s piece on this issue. As the article states, wealthy students have historically had the upper hand but the gap continues to narrow between income groups. The reality is simple: wealth trumps all factors and always will in a capitalistic environment. Working towards equity in college and the workforce means doing the same in the K12 sector, and most business types are opponents of investing more in K12. Data from the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, shows that the damage to the academic pipeline by income and race/ethnic group is largely done by the fourth grade. To her point about the dumbest kid in the richest area, understand this: the “dumbest” rich kid still went to the best schools, had the best teachers, and had a college-going mentality in the school, community, and home. The smartest of the poor have many social barriers to overcome to even approach what might seem as equity. Read Ron Suskind’s A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League for a dramatic representation of this issue. It is an eyeopener to the challenges that low-income students face. There we have it. I think people like Ms. Swonk should be more thoughtful and prescriptive rather than holding on to old values that do not stand up in this economy or the nation at large.  Virginia, Vermont, Washington, and California. See https://slate.com/business/2014/08/states-that-allow-bar-exams-without-law-degrees-require-apprenticeships-instead-of-law-school.html.  https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2018/03/14/the-us-will-become-minority-white-in-2045-census-projects/.  https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d16/tables/dt16_303.70.asp?  https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_318.30.asp.  https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_chb.asp.  https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_325.65.asp?  https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_325.70.asp?  https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/02/the-more-gender-equality-the-fewer-women-in-stem/553592/.  https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_325.25.asp?  https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/04/heres-how-little-math-americans-actually-use-at-work/275260/.  https://www.forbes.com/sites/prestoncooper2/2018/02/26/college-enrollment-surges-among-low-income-students/#1fec62b5293b.