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Painting Postsecondary with a Broad Brush

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May 29, 2012 06:25 pm


Graduation season brings forth, as it does every year, the debate about whether college is worth it. On May 20, 60 Minutes featured Peter Thiel insisting that plumbers out-earn doctors. Yet here at the Alliance, we continue to cite research from Anthony Carnevale showing that by 2018, over 60 percent of jobs will require some postsecondary training and point to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that high school graduates with no postsecondary are three times more likely to be unemployed than their more educated peers.

So who’s right? This spring, I’ve talked to a wide range of recent high school graduates and college students considering what paths they wish to pursue. And I hear something a little alarming. “I want to be a writer.” “I want to be a photographer.” A friend of mine started out at Columbia University intending to be a special education teacher or speech therapist. She ended up changing her major to creative writing and wanted somehow to get into fashion. Now she’s underemployed, and in a somewhat unstable field (she’s had three jobs in three years) as a nanny in New York City.

Writing and the arts are extremely important, and I often think of Dan Pink’s analysis in his book A Whole New Mind that our society will need more creative people, who can think with the right and left sides of their brains, and that jobs requiring creativity are less likely to be outsourced to overseas cubicles. He has a point.

But what Carnevale’s research continues to show is that despite what Thiel says, not all college degrees, or even postsecondary education opportunities, are created equal. Majors matter. But not only does what students study matter, but where in their field of study they choose to work. “Unemployment in majors related to computers and mathematics vary widely depending on the technical and scientific content of the major,” Carnevale writes in Hard Times: Not All College Degrees are Created Equal . “Employers are still hiring technical computer specialists who can write software and invent new applications. But for information specialists who use software to manipulate, mine, and disseminate information, hiring slows down in recessions.” There is, he finds, a “difference in unemployment between people who invent computer technology as opposed to people who use computer technology.”

It’s also important to remember that postsecondary does have to mean a bachelor’s degree. Research from the Hudson Institute also found that certificates from two-year institutions, as well as associate’s degrees, could result in earnings similar to those of many bachelor’s degree earners. For example, median earnings for bachelor’s degrees in humanities fields were $33,552, while graduates with health-related associate’s degrees or certificates had median earnings of $45,968.

In a time when college education is increasingly becoming a political football, with student loan burdens increasing, with Congress debating whether to keep the interest rate on those loans low, when our economy continues to struggle to recover due in part to a lack of highly skilled candidates for the jobs that are available, it’s important that policymakers not paint all postsecondary attainment with the same broad brush. Our economy does need more highly educated, highly skilled workers. They need to be creative and able to collaborative and engage in critical thinking. But they also need to have studied fields that are the most critical to our growing economy – and that means the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. I personally urge any college student I know to pursue their interests in writing, arts, or humanities – but to also make sure that they have some technical skills as well, whether it’s statistics for someone interested in public policy, digital media or principles of design for a budding artist, the science of sound engineering for a musician, accounting or finance for anyone who wants to be in a management position, or psychology for those interested in helping others.

And our high schools have a critical role to play. Public policy cannot dictate what majors students choose or what fields they decide to pursue. But our K-12 institutions need to do a better job preparing students and fostering the love of learning that allows them a wider range of choices. We know we need to raise the standard to which we teach science. But we also have to make it relevant, powerful, and interesting. Students who leave high school need to be prepared not just to choose science majors, but to have the skills to stick with those majors. Research shows that nearly 40 percent of students who start college with a STEM major do not graduate with one, and over 40 percent of those who do graduate with a STEM degree do not go to work in a STEM field. Project-based learning and teaching approaches that foster critical thinking and problem solving can help ensure that students have access to the widest range of opportunities.

High schools also need to make sure that students have opportunities to learn about the work world. As career and technical education funds continue to get cut, it is more important than ever for schools to develop partnerships with local communities and businesses as well as institutes of higher education to provide students with work-based learning experiences. Too many students go off to college without much of a sense of what the work world is like or what kinds of occupations are out there, especially in emerging fields.

There are countless resources for schools and students that can provide insights into the skills those students will need when they graduate. My guess is that most are vastly underused. But parents, schools, teachers, counselors, and communities should be looking to those resources, rather than listening to hyperbolic debates about whether a college degree is overrated. As important as accountability is, the most important outcome our nation needs is educated, skilled, productive students who are ready for the exciting opportunities that await them.

Terri Duggan Schwartzbeck is a senior policy associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education.


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