Should universal post-secondary education be our goal?
This is a deep question and one that inspires strong emotions. Despite the strong commitment we all share to opportunity for all, there is no evidence that if all children had post-secondary education the economy would offer better jobs for all of them. In fact, it appears that roughly half of the jobs in the economy — now and over the next couple of decades — require no formal post-secondary education at all. Only about one third will require an academic post-secondary credential.
According to Governor Patrick’s education agenda the goal is to “Prepare every student for post-secondary education, career and lifelong economic, social and civic success.” In other words, every child should be educated in secondary school to a level that would prepare them to enter college. The document actually takes the statement one level further to suggest that all students should actually go on to achieve at least a two-year post-secondary credential. See Ready for 21st Century Success: The New Promise of Public Education. The Patrick Administration Education Agenda.
The Governor in his speech announcing the agenda, broadened the goal slightly but affirmed that it applies to all children. “At least two years of community college or training in a trade will be the new baseline for a complete education. . . . And the education system we create will include every child. All means all.” This is a very ambitious goal, given that recent Boston Foundation Projections are that only 15% of 2003 Boston Public School 9th graders will attain a college degree.
Most would agree with the principle that no child who achieves adequately in secondary school should face insurmountable financial barriers to a post-secondary education. It is also easy to accept that, in today’s world in which many new workers are not educated at the post-secondary level, more education creates more and better options for workers. But it is does not follow either that (a) the economy will develop more rapidly if all children have a post-secondary education or (b) that the economy will reward all workers who have a post-secondary education.
Massachusetts has great universities and a strong cluster of advanced technology industries. Certainly, we want to offer these industries a deep pool of talent to recruit from. This is the implicit argument for universal post-secondary education that the Governor makes in his speech. However, these industries constitute a relatively small share of the job market. Most of the job openings over the next decade will be in much lower skill sectors.
Basic national labor force projections for the coming decade from the Bureau of Labor Statistics do paint a picture of rapid growth in a some high-skill fields, but these fields are growing from a very small base, and net openings are still expected to occurpreponderantly in much more familiar job roles that require no education at all. 54.5% of openings from 2006 to 2016 are expected to require only short or medium term on-the-job training. Jobs like food preparer and home health aide are among the roles that will account for the most openings. Another 19.5% will require job experience, long-term on the job training or a post-secondary vocational award. Only 26.1% of openings will require an associates degree or higher. These projections for net openings basically mirror the distribution of skill levels for total jobs in the economy, which is not expected to change dramaticaly from 2006 to 2016. This suggests that the distribution of skills in the following decade (through 2026) will remain heavily weighted to the low end. See Table 5 in the national labor force projections.
Slightly less current labor force projections for Massachusetts (using the same conceptual framework) painted a similar picture. Although, jobs requiring an associates degree or higher will grow more rapidly than other jobs, only 32% of net job openings in Massachusetts between 2004 and 2014 were projected to require an associates degree or higher. See Charts 12 and 13 in labor force projections for Massachusetts. 51% were required to require only short or medium term on the job training. For definitions of terms see the detailed Massachusetts report.
The Agenda at note 12 cites a snapshot survey of job openings in the 4th quarter of 2007 which showed that 46% of openings required an associates degree or higher. Since jobs at this level were only 31% of the economy, the greater stock of openings at this level does suggest that employers in that quarter either were filling more openings or having a harder time filling those openings than lower qualification openings in this particular time window. The number was up sharply from the year earlier (38%), suggesting that it can bounce around, and that it does not necessarily suggest a higher trend than the formal trend estimates.
For the proposition that “some two thirds of all new jobs will require some education after high school”, the Agenda at note 13 cites a fact sheet created by a national education advocacy group called Achieve. Achieve is a foundation funded group of business executives and governors dedicated to raising standards in public education. The fact sheet does make the statement that “More than two-thirds of new jobs created by 2010 require some education beyond high school, like technical training or an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.”
The fact sheet in turn cites the report of a project sponsored by Achieve called the American Diploma Project, which was funded In partnership with the Education Trust, an organ of the American Association for Higher Education. The ADP report, according to the methodology section at the end, is built on a study sponsored earlier by ADP and performed by researchers for the Education Testing Service called “Connecting Education Standards to Employment: Course Taking Patterns of Young Workers.” The foundations for this analysis are, once again, the occupational employment projections of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Historical projections can be found in November back issues of the Monthly Labor Review. The ETS report relies on the 2000-2010 projections. These projections are not materially different from the 2006-2016 projections cited above — only 25.4% of openings are expected to require an associates degree or higher.
So where does the “two-thirds require some education beyond high school” number come from? The Bureau of Labor Statistics gives priority in classifying jobs to the requirement of a formal credential — if any post-secondary award is required for a job, the BLS classifies so classifies the job, even if the job also requires experience or on-the-job training. (See page 82 of the 2000-2010 projections). However, the ETS researcher classifies jobs based on income and so includes among his “good” jobs, some jobs requiring no post-secondary award, only on-the-job-training, stating by way of explanation at page 4,
Many highly paid professional jobs require a four-year college degree, while well paid skilled jobs tend to encompass more broad preparation such as an associate degree, certificate, or other postsecondary or on-the-job training. [emphasis added].
In other words, there is a misinterpretation being compounded through several levels of citation with the result that the true numbers are inverted. In truth, roughly two-thirds of jobs require no post-secondary credential. However, many jobs in the middle-third of the economy are fairly good, even though no post-secondary credential is required for them. As the numbers have been cited and recited, that middle third has been regrouped with the top third as if it required post-secondary education.