A Future for Higher Education

Brian Herman. Professor. Biomedical Engineering, University of Minnesota

Claudia Neuhauser, Assoc Vice Chancellor/Vice President, Research & Tech Transfer, University of Houston

For years, we kept hearing about the need to increase the percentage of students who complete college to meet workforce needs. Students were told that a college degree results in higher earnings [i], more career opportunities, and even better health [ii]. And parents and students bought into this dream despite the fact that close to 45% of students who start college never finish [iii] and that 1 in 4 Americans who attend college now carry an aggregate debt of 1.6 trillion dollars and have troubles paying off their loans [iv,v].

Only recently, some have started to doubt whether every high school graduate needs to be pushed into college [vi,vii]. While the promise of a better life with a college degree has come true for previous generations when educational attainment was quite a bit lower, it is not so clear whether the good jobs will be waiting for today’s young adults when they finish college.

We produce way more college graduates than there are jobs available. Out of a total of 160 million jobs in the U.S. in 2018, only 26.2% of jobs required a Bachelor’s or higher degree [viii]. This contrasts starkly with the 39.6% of 25 to 44 year-olds who had attained a Bachelor’s degree or higher in 2018 [ix]. The same data also show that there isn’t much of a need for advanced degrees: only about 4.4% of jobs required Master’s, doctoral or professional degrees, whereas 13.4% of 25 to 44 year-olds had attained such degrees in 2018.

The future doesn’t seem to be all that different. Almost all of the top 10 fastest growing jobs in 2018 required no formal educational degrees: retail salespersons, food preparation/servers, cashiers, office clerks, registered nurses, customer service reps, laborers, stock and freight handlers, waiters and waitresses, personal care aids and janitors/cleaners [x]. The only job in this list that required more than a high school diploma was registered nurses.

We end up with a sobering conclusion: Too many students are wasting their time and money on attempting but not completing college. And the ones who graduate end up having the wrong skill sets for tomorrow’s economy and being underemployed and saddled with significant debt.

Some of the current presidential candidates want to do something about the debt and provide free public four-year college for all who want it. But this would likely exacerbate the current situation where we already have too many college graduates with too much debt and poor economically vibrant job prospects.

Should we let the pendulum swing to the other side and discourage students from attending college? Some already made that decision as can be seen in the decline of college attendance for the past eight years [xi].

For too many students, four years right after high school is simply too long and too expensive, and they quit before getting a degree. A combination of certificate programs/online learning opportunities, industry-led educational efforts (either in partnership with institutions of higher education or company based) and community colleges could be a much better and faster path, at least for getting the foot into the door of employment.

This approach can get students the appropriate training for the first job without being saddled with years and years of paying off student loans.  This may, however, not be enough for the second or third job. A radically different approach to enabling life-long learning is needed. Life-long learning must become a family-friendly, seamless integration of education and work that enables employees to add skills while working and raising a family. This may require changes in eligibility for federal financial aid, for instance, to allow students to receive financial aid without being enrolled in formal degree programs.

There are still arguments made, however, for college degrees and more advanced degrees despite the glut of graduates with college and even more advanced degrees. We wrote about this in a previous blog, Who is the Future of the American Workforce? [xii], where we argued for the importance of immigration to address the mismatch between the types of jobs available and the current skill set of the workforce. There are simply not enough U.S. graduates to fill the jobs at the upper end of the skills spectrum.

Another argument comes from Robin Harding, the Tokyo Bureau Chief of the Financial Times. He argued that “economic growth ultimately comes from new ideas, and the discovery of new ideas depends on the number of people researching them. If population began to decline at the global level, it would mean ever fewer people devoted to research and thus ever slower progress, at a time when new technologies already seem to have become harder to find” [xiii].

Although the U.S. population is projected to continue to grow, much of the growth is in the population 65 years and over. In fact, over the next ten years, the population ages 18-64 is projected to grow by a mere 5.2 million, whereas the population ages 65 and over by 17.0 million [xiv]. If the U.S. wants to remain at the cutting edge of new technologies, increasing the R&D workforce may require long-term government investments in research and incentives for business and industry to grow their research arm. To fill the R&D jobs, colleges and universities will need to produce more graduates with Master’s and doctoral degrees. Because of demographics, these graduates may increasingly need to come from the much larger pool of current employees who want to get graduate-level education while working full-time. This group currently finds it nearly impossible to fit into the current model of full-time graduate students without quitting their jobs. Expanding the pool of graduate students would mean a radical rethinking of what it means to get a PhD. Those who work full-time cannot spend years in the lab of a university professor to conduct research. Instead, universities and employers in the private or government sector would need to collaborate to develop research projects that would allow employees to learn how to do research as part of their day job.

[i] https://www.stlouisfed.org/~/media/files/pdfs/hfs/is-college-worth-it/emmons_kent_ricketts_college_still_worth_it.pdf?la=en

[ii] https://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-Education-Matters-to-Your/242123/

[iii] https://www.cnbc.com/2017/10/10/bill-gates-us-college-dropout-rates-are-tragic.html

[iv] https://www.cnbc.com/2020/01/16/student-loan-debt-is-over-1point6-trillion-and-balances-arent-going-down.html

[v] https://www.nitrocollege.com/research/average-student-loan-debt

[vi] https://www.chronicle.com/article/By-2020-They-Said-2-Out-of-3/247884

[vii] https://www.fastcompany.com/90450507/will-a-college-education-be-necessary-in-2040

[viii] https://www.careeronestop.org/Toolkit/Careers/careers-largest-employment.aspx  

[ix] Educational attainment

[x] https://www.bls.gov/emp/tables/occupations-most-job-growth.htm

[xi] https://www.studentclearinghouse.org/nscblog/fall-enrollments-decline-for-8th-consecutive-year/

[xii] https://www.hsnatx.com/blog/2019/09/12/who-is-the-future-american-workforce/

[xiii] Harding, Robin. The costs of a declining population. Opinion. Demographics and population. Financial Times. January 14, 2020.

[xiv] Demographic Turning Points for the United States: Population Projections for 2020 to 2060. March 2018. (https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/2018/demo/P25-1144.pdf; accessed on January 28, 2020)

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