Bachelor degree production isn’t a big problem in this country. Associate degrees and certificates are where the U.S. lags other industrialized countries, according to the latest study from Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
Underinvestment in sub-baccalaureate credentials has led to a messy, disorganized system of job training for 29 million middle-class jobs for workers without bachelor’s degrees, according to the report, which was released jointly by the center and Civic Enterprises, a public policy research firm.
“This has always been the weakness of the American system,” said Carnevale, the study’s primary author.
The report proposes a national “learning exchange” to make the pipeline more efficient. It describes an information system that students could use to see what sort of training and education they need to land jobs. The exchange would benefit colleges by helping them to tailor their curriculums to the job market, and it would also help employers by training more skilled workers.
The basic infrastructure is in place for a learning exchange. States collect wage records for workers, but that data are undeveloped, the study said, and is missing an “essential connection” to curriculums and specific courses offered by colleges. By making that link, the exchange could show whether specific programs of study lead to good-paying and stable jobs.
The United States ranks second internationally in the share of workers who hold a bachelor degree.
But it ranks 16th internationally in the share of workers with sub-baccalaureate awards, like associate degrees and certificates.
Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Civic Enterprises
That information could also be used by students to do a “gap analysis” of where their education is lacking for specific jobs, Carnevale said. And given the rise of online education, they could often fill in those gaps without pursuing a degree, by taking one course at a time.
“You can scrape courses off the Internet,” he said. “You don’t need to go to higher education institutions to get them.”
While that probably sounds like bad news for colleges, Carnevale said the exchange would be a net positive for the academy. That’s because students are more likely to eventually pursue further credentials, even a bachelor degree, if they take even a small number of college courses, according to research findings that surprised Carnevale.
“There’s more of an educational pathway than I thought,” he said. “Education begets other education.”
Britain has a version of the learning exchange in place, Carnevale said, noting that Monster.com, a job search engine, and Pearson are working on a job skills exchange system. But that project presumably will not include course-level information from colleges, he said, and obviously won’t be a public, government-run database. So, for now, the learning exchange is just an idea.
“This thing doesn’t exist in the United States,” Carnevale said, but its components are “within technological reach."
College for All?
Inefficiency in the nation’s job training system didn’t matter so much in the past when, mostly due to the manufacturing industry, high school degrees could get workers in the door and on-the-job training could take care of the rest.
That is no longer the case, as more jobs have shifted from blue-collar to white-collar, and relatively few are open to high school degree holders.
Carnevale’s report arrives amid a cacophony of news media coverage that suggests college degrees may no longer be a wise investment, given increasing student debt and the tight job market. But reporters and pundits tend to focus on bachelor degrees. The new study looks at the 29 million “middle jobs” that require more education and training than high school but less than a four-year degree. Those jobs carry an average salary of between $35,000 and $75,000, more than what high school diploma holders earn on average.
Richard Vedder, an economist at Ohio University, is a chief proponent of the argument that American workers are over-credentialed, like bartenders with bachelor degrees. He’s often at odds with Carnevale, but agrees with the general tack of his latest report.
“We need to explore linking student learning to labor market needs,” Vedder said. “There’s value in bringing buyers and sellers together.”
The report describes five main pathways for middle job-seekers: associate degrees, college-issued certificates, apprenticeships, industry-based certifications and employer-based training.
Colleges will continue to play an important role in preparing people to get those jobs, and to succeed in them, Carnevale said. That’s because employer-based training often isn’t enough these days, and the wide adoption of apprenticeships isn’t currently feasible.
There is also a trend of industries with their own established certification systems, like in IT or manufacturing, to reach out to the academy for help. Part of the reason, Carnevale said, is that college can help students develop a broad range of skills, like writing, that employers can’t cover with non-academic training and certification systems.
“You need to bring the whole person to work,” he said.
In a more perfect world, Carnevale said, there would be adequate public funding for job training and related higher education. But that probably isn’t realistic given projected state and federal tax revenues for the next five years or so, he said. And strengthening the link between credentialing and jobs is the best solution in the meantime.
“After January America is going to be defined by the politics of paucity,” said Carnevale. “These efficiency ideas are going to come to the fore.”
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