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A different spin on degrees and dollars

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March 11, 2011 06:52 pm


It was serendipitous timing that as I was busy preparing for the release of the Alliance’s most recent projections on the economic benefits of improving the graduation rate (due out March 22) I ran across Paul Krugman’s recent column in the New York Times titled “Degrees and Dollars.”  However, as I read the piece I realized that he was arguing just the opposite of what its title had led me to expect.

Krugman maintains that pushing more students to earn college degrees may give us less bang for our buck than we expect because increases in technology have “hollowed out” the job market, replacing middle-wage workers and leaving only low-wage and high-wage jobs. He gives the example of computer programs that can analyze legal documents, replacing the need for lawyers and paralegals who do research.

But there is another side to this story. While on one hand, innovation produces technologies that can mimic workers’ skills and thus replace them, it also creates technologies that are “complementary” to workers’ skills. These “complementary technologies”, discussed in the same Autor, Levy, and Murnane article that Krugman references in his column and in research conducted by Dr. Daron Acemoglu of MIT, support but do not replace the work that we do. Think, for example, of MRIs or even smart boards in classrooms. These technologies support the work that is already being done but are not replacing anyone’s job, per se. Often they can even create additional jobs – radiology technicians or programmers for smart board functionality, for example – for which there was no need before these tools were invented.

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In fact, Dr. Acemoglu states in his work that “opposed to the skill-replacing technological advances of the eighteenth century, today most new technologies appear to be skill-complementary.”

The economic necessity that more students reach higher levels of education is quite evident when looking at projections of the jobs that will be available in the future. Dr. Anthony Carnevale and his colleagues at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce have estimated that the share of American jobs that require some postsecondary education will increase to 63 percent by 2018, not even a decade from now. Based on these projections, the nation will need 22 million students to earn a college degree in order to staff these positions, but we are on track to fall short by at least three million. See the graphic to the right.

As my dad always told me, a good education is never a waste. But that’s no longer advice that a parent gives to a listless high school student contemplating college ─ it’s advice the president is giving students around the country. It’s also an economic necessity. Moving more students into higher levels of educational attainment to meet the job projections will require increasing college graduation rates, but also graduating more students from high school ready to tackle the rigors of postsecondary education.


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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.