Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What is the Future of Education and the Workforce in the United States

In recent years certain parties have begun to question the economic value of a college education based on changes in both the available number of jobs as well as the success rates for those of various majors acquiring their intended and/or desired job. Overall it seems foolish to argue that a college education does not have any value. In fact one could argue that a college education has never been more valuable relative to the ability to acquire a “quality” job. For example a recent Pew Research Center study determined that an individual with only a high school graduate level education will only earn, on average, about 62% of what an individual with a four-year degree will earn down from the high school graduate earning 77% back in 1979.1

Of course statistics like this appear impressive; typically significant problems come from the utilization of averages. Few will argue that certain jobs have significantly higher financial windfalls than other jobs both of which may require an individual to have at least a bachelor’s degree. Basically the wage curve for jobs in the United States has not increased in a linear manner; the wages associated with the top portion of “quality” jobs have dramatically increased over the years leaving the rest behind in the proverbial dust. Therefore, if one were to remove the top 5% and bottom 5% of wages for jobs held by those with four-year degrees it stands to reason that this 62% number would significantly increase to a number much closer to the 1979 derived 77%. Overall due to education displacement and college graduates taking jobs they are “over-educated” for, it would not be surprising if overall bachelor’s degree wages have decreased in recent years, especially since wage growth in general has been so poor.

This element is an important consideration when contemplating the economic value of a college degree. One of the problems in modern society is the rise of the “gig” economy; basically due to a much lower pool of full time jobs with benefits, individuals now must instead engage in numerous part-time short-term tasks/opportunities with few to no benefits at much less money both in total value and consistency of acquisition. This trend bucks those of the past where the advancement of technology would facilitate increased job growth both in number and salary.

Unfortunately technology may have begun to reach the tipping point where it is a net detriment to job growth instead of a net benefit. Combining this reality with the continued outsourcing of jobs by numerous corporate interests to lower cost environments in other countries, it becomes fair to question the panacea of education that some tout with respects to job prospects. For example there is still this simplistic notion that when individual A loses a job to another individual in a lower cost environment or to a piece of technology, then that individual A simply needs to acquire new skills and that education will “magically” produce a new quality job for this person. Clearly this belief is not supported by reality for numerous well-educated individuals do not have quality jobs despite their determination and skill sets and this trend appears to be worsening not improving.

Based on these conditions instead of “upgrading” one’s position in the job market, the college degree has almost become a prerequisite to compete for a quality job, thereby making the college degree important even for those who are not prepared to excel in college. Strangely enough the “importance” of a college degree has evolved rather inexplicably for even those jobs that in the past were filled by those without college degrees. The general expectations and duties of these jobs have not changed, yet a larger number of companies expect applicants to have college degrees for jobs that involve secretarial or simple logistics work. Why, what does the college degree bring in modern society that in the past was “excluded”? Overall unfortunately with this increase in the general employment “importance” of a college degree the costs associated with acquiring one have also increased, thereby dramatically increasing the risks associated with failure, not only in acquiring the degree, but also in acquiring a job after earning the degree.

To better identify these new risks one looks to the old adage that education is akin to investing in one’s future. In the past one could view going to college as investing 10 dollars for a 80% chance at making 50 dollars (a high quality job) otherwise one could frequently, but not always, still acquire 15 dollars (a lower quality job) even upon failure versus the ability to acquire 15 dollars without having invested that 10 dollars. Now going to college is akin to investing 30 dollars for a 50% chance at making 50 dollars otherwise one is limited to a lower probability than in the past at making 10 dollars (lower quality job with lower acquisition probability). While simplistic this analogy basically demonstrates the almost irrational change that has occurred in the job market in modern society within the United States, more money must be invested for a lower probability of success at achieving a smaller average payday. Note that success is not only acquiring a degree, but also acquiring a job that is appropriate for that degree.

One interesting aspect of this degree acquisition are those who feel community colleges should no longer be used as jumping off points for traditional four-year educations, but instead should focus more on becoming vocational schools to train individuals for specific jobs. Such a strategy is inherently questionable because the purpose of education in general is to produce individuals that can effectively rationalize, make positive contributions to society and responsibly participate in government whether it is as an elected official or a voting citizen. A narrow educational experience in a vocational institution hardly has the capacity to aid in the achievement of such a goal. Thus, converting community colleges into “cogs in the machine” educational environments does not appear to be a responsible choice at this point.

Furthermore it is the second portion of this equation that has failed in the modern economy. Acquiring college degrees is not the problem with more degrees awarded, both proportionally and in total number, than at any other time; the problem is that such accomplishment has lost significant meaning for outsourcing and technology have shrunk the “quality” job pool. Thus, numerous individuals with four-year degrees have had to settle for jobs below what would be expected of individuals with such a level of education.

In fact the unemployment rate for recent college graduates remains higher than years before the Great Recession in 2008 and higher for all other age groups. For those graduates that have jobs they are more likely to be underemployed than past younger college graduates as well as other age groups.2 Wages are also down for them relative to other age groups and their past peers.2 Further exasperating these problems is that these types of jobs seem to no longer have an effective and transparent advancement track. Basically the ability to steadily advance in the company both in responsibilities and salary have ceased to exist in part due to the “gig” economy and in part due to unknown reasons (maybe in the name of more profits).

Some might argue that this conclusion of a shrinking quantity of “quality” jobs is erroneous due to continuous claims of the need for qualified individuals in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields. Unfortunately this counter-argument is complicated by the expected requirements of those jobs. First, not everyone is attending college for the purpose of receiving a STEM-based degree. Basically the “quality” job demand is not large or widespread, thus should everyone simply attempt to acquire one of these degrees even if it is not in their field of interest or expertise? The problem with chasing the “hot” or “trending” degree, especially for some the very specific fields within the STEM umbrella, is that those areas can contract in a blink of an eye based on changes in market conditions leaving individuals with a near worthless degree (as far as the job market is concerned). Part of the problem in this respect is that not surprisingly the public typically only hears about the successful individuals in these fields not those who struggle or fail.

Second, and more importantly, the limiting factor for acquiring a vast majority of the available STEM-based jobs is not education, but experience. Basically these jobs are reserved for individuals who have degrees in the appropriate field as well as at least 5 years of experience in that field. The problem is that there are not enough entry-level jobs in advanced fields so individuals can acquire this desired experience. Another problem is that the entry-level jobs that exist do not shut out those with experience. Thus, there can be individuals with 3 or less years experience vying for these entry-level jobs as well and not surprisingly they have a higher probability of getting them over one without any experience. In short a young graduate can receive the necessary education, but will still lack the most desired element, experience. Overall the fad in the early 21st century was referencing this glut of demand for STEM qualified individuals and a cooling science and tech environment has reduced this demand, yet the public line has yet to acknowledge this reduction.

This new mindset of a college degree being a prerequisite for a quality job, both in the present and in the future due to the lack of advancement opportunities, has hurt the process of education itself. Education has become a means to an end or a de facto commodity instead of a tool to enrich the life of an individual, thereby turning education into a rote activity with reduced levels of creativity, fun and enjoyment for a number of individuals. This issue is further complicated by the fact that if everyone is acquiring an advanced education then its value becomes diluted psychologically in that it is not viewed as a boon or achievement, but instead as “just something that you do” stripping even more enjoyment from the educational process, especially for those who are not naturally motivated to learn. A side issue is that so many people have advanced degrees employers are less likely to reward applicants for having one in addition to it being expected.

With education becoming more of a commodity it is treated more deterministically, in that people attempt to devise the “optimal” way to provide education forgetting that the students, especially in their formative years, do not learn the same way and have their own strengths and weaknesses. This mindset produces a “one size fits all” methodology, which due to the aforementioned differences will inherently produces winners and losers based on who is best supported by this universal education method. Also this mindset has the significant potential to produce a single blueprint for the future of society, which is dangerous for inherent flexibility and diversity is superior to rigidity. This new mindset is demonstrated in the new testing culture that has arisen in the last 15 years in public education as well as the quasi-retreat from public schools to private and specialized charter institutions by wealthier families.

This testing culture also facilitates a sprinter’s mindset where the only thing that matters is preparing and succeeding on the next test or the next quiz, thus focusing on skills that are only relevant to acquire in the “now” instead of a marathoner’s mindset where long term retention of knowledge and skills is important in order to provide foundations to build upon when acquiring new and more complicated skills (i.e. the basis of quality learning and education). This mindset has also seeped over to the “future” of education in MODO courses and micro-degrees, which can be largely viewed as “cram” courses where 1-2 years of knowledge is comprised into a 2-3 month period. One wonders how effectively this strategy will be in the long-term, but it is difficult to see it as a net positive.

Not only are students hurt by this new culture both in education and the job market, but so are teachers. The single mindset of “make sure students can pass the test” and the seemingly incessant testing schedule has fostered the idea of teachers as simple “cogs in the machine” as well, further eroding the importance placed on the position and diminishing unique and inventive teaching methodologies. Groups like Teach for America and their supporters contribute to this mindset by selling the idea that quickly trained amateurs, most of whom will be out of teaching in five years, can be as successful, if not more successful, than fully trained and/or experienced teachers by simply following “the playbook”.

A sad state of affairs is that these programs, in addition to charter schools, on average have not produced higher test scores or even more “educated” students with the exception of those privately funded institutions with much more money than public schools that hand-pick their student body ensuring high student quality and potential from the start. Failing to produce improved results is not the only accomplishment of these institutions; they have also driven a continuing public and private lack of respect for the professional teaching position, which when combined with continuing negative elements of institutional control as well as negative financial incentives, has created an environment where fewer individuals want to be teachers, thereby inherently reducing the total number of quality teachers in the educational pool.

Not surprisingly teachers, like any occupation, gravitate towards the best financial, occupational and social environments and with less quality teachers entering and remaining in the profession society has created small concentrated environments of universal teaching quality leaving other areas significantly devoid of this element. The current environment regarding education has only exacerbated this division. This exodus of quality teachers and administrators to environments that frankly do not need their talents combined with the lack of respect for the process of teaching has created a serious financial issue for a number of schools. The idea that “anyone can teach” has created the erroneous philosophy of “schools can operate on shoestring budgets”.

This philosophy is dangerous for two reasons: 1) a teaching environment with limited resources place unnecessary pressures on the staff and limits their ability to evolve and grow; evolution that would create a more positive and meaningful educational environment; 2) limited resources place psychological burdens on students, which will commonly result in less motivation, shorter attention spans and greater levels of misbehavior because such an environment facilitates the idea of future prospects seeming so bleak that the overarching mindset is “what is the point?”;

The idea that outside environment matters is a convenient and common exclusion made by teacher critics. When students are motivated, work hard and follow instruction, as well as are curious and ask questions because they want to learn, then even a mediocre teacher appears to be a great and inspirational teacher. When students are frustrated, starving, concerned for their safety, do not respect the institution or its instructors, then even a creative and visionary teacher appears to be a failure unable to “reach” his/her students.

This above discussion has raised two unquestionable issues regarding future job markets and education. 1) the number of available quality jobs relative to the number of applicants is trending downwards in both respects (fewer quality jobs and more applicants) and it is difficult to see a scenario in which this trend changes in the near future if government does not act; 2) the demand of a college degree and the deemed “tools to succeed in college” for even a sufficient opportunity to acquire a “quality” job has produced a single-mindedness relative to the educational process destroying teaching diversity, prestige, and importance; this loss makes the evolution and maturation of a divergent number of intelligent personalities much more difficult, thus diminishing the overall quality of society;

Focusing on the second issue first, some argue that the problems associated with any quality teacher exodus can be overcome by technology. Proponents of MODO and other online instruction methods are already hyping its transformational potential, especially in the avenue of lowering class sizes. However, applying these mediums to education raises questions regarding personal instruction. For example what happens when a student has a question? Basically what is the dynamic of how a teacher is supposed to interact with a classroom of 20 students and other 10-15 “tele-educating” from their homes? What happens if the teacher is the one “tele-educating”? It is difficult to scale any success at the college level to the middle or high school level.

While this is one a single issue of many involving “tele-education”, an interesting element is how does this inherent increased complexity of student/teacher interaction reflect the new modern narrative/trend in education of “anyone can teach”. Others talk of providing personalized education through technology. Such a goal seems incredibly ambitious and complicated, especially since proponents do not provide a clear definition for what a personalized education or personalized educational experience is supposed to represent.

At the moment there are two significant problems facing the incorporation of technology into the current educational system. First, the incorporation of technology appears to be following an inverted need curve, basically the communities that could benefit the most from technology are the least likely to incorporate it due to lack of finances and lack of specialists; instead more wealthy communities have and will continue to incorporate technology while poorer and more rural communities will not. Therefore, instead of acting as an equalizing force in education narrowing the education gap between the rich and the poor or between whites and non-whites, as envisioned, technology is turning out to be simply another means in which the “haves” separate themselves from the “have nots”. Unfortunately for technology adopters this general funding issue appears to be semi-permanent until the financial culture surrounding the importance of education changes.

Second, the utilization of technology as a negative force on education has been widely demonstrated numerous times already. Simply ask almost any teacher to name the most detrimental device to teaching and it stands to reason that a vast majority will reply “the smart phone”. Not only are smart phones huge sources of distraction during class both for the directly interacting student and any others he/she may choose to communicate with via text, but they have also been demonstrated to be useful tools for those who attempt to cheat on assignments and tests. Unfortunately most of the “expertise” that the younger generations are supposed to possess regarding the application of technology appears front-loaded in the entertainment field and lacking in the education and enlightening discovery fields.

For example it could be successfully argued that technology as a whole has fostered an increased level of laziness and carelessness as students simply plagiarize from online pieces regardless of their accuracy. A number of students seem to believe that because something is online then it must be true; or just “Wikipedia” something and call it a day refusing to engage in any deeper level of analysis and understanding. Understand that Wikipedia can be a valuable resource for background as a jumping off point, but too many students view it as the only needed reference. Part of the reason for this increased detrimental behavior in education is the fact that, as mentioned above, education itself has been marginalized to a results-only system, thus the actual process or methodology behind education is viewed as irrelevant, just “getting it down” is important. Overall before technology can actually become a boon in education these problems must be address for technology cannot solve them, only exacerbate them.

So what can be done about the marginalization of education? If one of the hallmark traits of the United States is the idea that anyone can rise from nothing to be something and that education is a central element increasing the probability of such success then establishing a firm set of rules to foster an educational environment that favors some and opposes others, the system that current exists, flies directly in the face of such an ideal. The overall solution is not a difficult one in that successful change needs to involve re-establishing education as a meaningful learning and growth experience, not as a means to an end (i.e. a job).

The first step is to grant methodological freedom back to teachers decoupling their wages and tenure from standardized testing results. Instead evaluations can take place through exit interviews, written student evaluations and final test performance. Finals in given subjects should represent a cumulative knowledge and retention of what was supposed to be taught, thus final grades would be a meaningful measurement element regarding both teaching and learning success. Remember education is a two-way street between the teacher and students, quality instruction and quality reception/retention.

Another part of accomplishing this larger goal is to reintroduce the value of previously vilified as meaningless elements like recess for elementary school level students and a wider array of liberal and performing arts for older students. Basically make education a more global and involved process rather than systematic rote analysis of narrow topics that for most students have little excitement, i.e. create a situation where individuals see value in actually going to school rather than having an environment that could be easily replicated at home through simple focal study.

A meaningful element to stimulate the above process is for both schools and families to better identify the passions and interests of the students and then correlate those elements into the learning process by demonstrating how learning “perceived” mundane things like math and chemistry tie into those passions. This way education becomes an amplifying force for that passion rather than one that detracts and potentially changes it to something that may be more ill-suited for the individual.

Another important element is to psychologically prepare students to embrace the discomfort of learning. Some argue that learning is not fun and education needs to reflect that, but it can be counter-argued that such an environment for a number of students has already been attained; this is a major problem for if students acknowledge learning and education as painful then they will be less interested in engaging in the process and will look for shortcuts (i.e. cheating). Instead one must focus on the discomfort of learning in the context that it is frustrating when one does not know something one wants to know, but proper instruction and hard/smart work makes that frustration ephemeral.

Basically learning is only not fun when no progress is being made. If progress is being made (i.e. some knowledge being acquired) then learning produces a noticeable sense of accomplishment and pain/frustration is limited and short-term. Therefore, one of the chief strategies in the educational process is to focus on why someone is not making progress and rectify it. This is not to say that education and learning is always effortless, but there is always a purpose to the effort.

In summary some of the most important first steps to resolving the second problem… on its face at least, is to increase the value for students in attending school itself, couple individual passions with more perceived mundane topics to demonstrate their overall value, and enhance the educational process by psychologically prepping students that learning is short-term frustrating long-term satisfying and that adversity makes the process worth it. Also while not discussed above it is important to honest evaluate students as well, if they are not ready to move on to the next level then they should not move on to the next level. However, while these goals are noteworthy and commendable, one could question if they even meaningful?

A central problem in education is the influence of the future job market for the sad reality is if one’s education cannot be parlayed into meaningful employment then most will look unfavorably upon that education. The current dictum of society has deemed that diversity in education is not applicable to “maximizing” output efficiency for future employment, thus diversity in education is not properly funded. Another concern is that just having a degree may not be enough as studies have shown that most employers in the “quality” job fields focus on candidates with degrees from elite institutions foregoing even quality well-known and regarded public universities. So how can the process of education be decoupled from the job market?

The most obvious solution is the return of a number of “quality” jobs that do not require a college degree, which would allow more freedom in education instead of degree chasing and resume padding, especially at the high school level (in order to gain entry into those elite colleges). Unfortunately achieving this solution appears very unlikely due to the continuing march of technology and the reduced spending power of young adults limiting the further expansion of the last holdouts of quality jobs not requiring an advanced degree, jobs in the entertainment industry.

There was an initial belief for a significant resurgence in domestic manufacturing, a past bastion of “quality” jobs, at some time in the future driven by dramatically increasing oil prices born from supply issues (i.e. peak oil), which would increase transportation costs to the point where cheaper outsourced manufacturing environments would become prohibitively expensive. However, the surprising significant drop in oil prices in recent years has dramatically decreased the probability of this hope coming to pass, in the near future at least. Overall as long as capitalism fuels the idea of chasing profits as the most important thing to a corporation, it is difficult to anticipate a change in the trend of fewer “quality” jobs available to those without advanced degrees.

A second option is significantly increasing the salaries for various service jobs and the like (the “non-quality” jobs) until those jobs become “quality” jobs. There has been a significant movement towards increasing minimum wages in various cities and a smaller movement for increasing the Federal minimum wage up to $12-$15 an hour. However, while California recently boasted the greatest success for this movement, it is difficult to see any type of major Federal legislation regarding wages in the near future and a number of states are taking steps to neutralize the ability of cities to independently change wage policy. Incidentally the new law in California will be an interesting test case for the viability of increasing wages on service jobs, but because the increase is incremental quality data will probably not be available until the early 2020s. Overall though regardless of the results from California it is difficult to conclude that increasing minimum wage is a valid overarching strategy, it will take hold in certain regions, but not others, which unfortunately may further complicate income inequality.

A third option is changing the admissions process for college by lessening the value of standardized testing and grades and increasing the value of interviews and critical thinking questions. Some would argue that such a process has taken hold in certain universities with optional weighting of SAT or ACT scores and more “holistic” admissions methods. This weighting change would also make sense with regards to grades; for example grades are significantly arbitrary based on some numerous uncontrollable environmental and academic circumstance; i.e. an A at high school x does not always carry the same weight as an A at high school y and some high schools allow students greater amounts of extra credit which conceal their actual knowledge of the subject through grade inflation.

However, the chief problem with these current holistic methods is that universities are not transparent in their application, thus stripping significant credibility from the methods themselves. Also one could argue that these holistic methods are not tangible enough to identify individuals with distinctive and valuable viewpoints in order to validate selecting a high achiever from a less difficult environment versus a lower achiever from a more difficult and/or diverse environment, which could create problems. Whether this problem corrects the “degree value” issue is questionable, but it can aid educational diversity and creativity at the middle and high school level, which is an important element in solving the overall problem between education and employment.

It must be noted that changing the admissions process does nothing to manage increasing tuition costs, especially at elite universities, which is another problem unto itself. However, due to the inherent economic demand detriments associated with most universities due to difficulties meeting enrollment goals from less interest in college and higher levels of competition, it is highly unlikely that significant drops in tuition will be seen in the near future. Government intervention may come from lower interest rates on various student loan programs, but without changes in the general economic system, increasing government grant programs seems wasteful.

Another possible solution is to significantly limit the risk associated with taking more indirect educational pathways that society may find “inefficient”. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this diversification of educational philosophy is by ensuring individuals have available resources to pursue their own educational identities. The chief aspect of risk in modern society is financial; the idea of absorbing risk is one of the elements that produces unbalance in society between rich and poor individuals where individuals with connections and/or resources are typically not punished when engaging in risky ventures and failing whereas those without connections are commonly severely punished when engaging in the exact same behavior and also failing.

One can point out numerous instances when an individual has talent in subject matter x, but needs to take a job in a much less desired and low talent field in order to “pay the bills” because the potential risk associated with attempting to gain employment in the talent field is too great, in part to “secret handshake” connections having nothing to do with skills or education. People like to believe that talent eventually wins out, but modern society has demonstrated too many times that such is not the case.

The most direct way of limiting the negative repercussions of risk is establishing a guaranteed basic income (GBI) which would provide basic living resources for all adult citizens with minor to clean criminal histories within a certain income bracket eliminating the need to take jobs solely to survive. A GBI creates freedom that will increase the probability that individuals will maximize their educational opportunities, talents and passions because of a mitigation of risk. While increasing wage is a nice idea there is question to how much it will actually affect poverty due to potential reduced work hours and the possibility of increased taxes due to tax bracket changes whereas a GBI will definitely eliminate poverty on a meaningful level.

Some may attempt to argue that a GBI will foster laziness and a lack of ambition if individuals receive a certain amount of money for simply existing, but such arguments fail to acknowledge that a GBI will only contribute to survival, it would be very difficult to live comfortably, enjoy luxury and make a mark on the world by forgoing a job only to live on the GBI. Also without things to do, individuals would quickly become board and would look to accomplish things to productively fill their time. Finally a GBI will allow individuals to better “invest” in themselves by providing them the necessary seed money to get started. Realistically there is no accuracy in the argument that a GBI would “corrupt” the work ethic of society and anyone who argues that such corruption would occur is simply wrong.

While the application of a GBI would be the most effective means to decouple the restrictions and risks of employment on education, it would definitely be a significant task to accomplish due to the preconceived notions regarding the application of capitalism in human society. This perception is a problem, for a number of individuals only regard a task as having value when someone is paid to do it, which is a dangerous attitude to have. Overall despite a GBI making sense to all major political parties and supporting most of their fundamental philosophical economic beliefs, its actual passage is presumed to be difficult, in part because no one has the guts to try.

A concerning element with the issue of employment and education is that it should be clearly obvious to anyone that the current method is not productive, does not benefit most individuals or society as a whole and cannot hold. So why did the current method ever rise in the first place and why does anyone actually support it? A cynic might think that such a system is desired by the powerful, those who have championed it in the first place by passing legislation like No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top, because it benefits their children, but provides far less benefit and even potential detriment to less wealthy families and children. Therefore, in such a system individuals who could become competition for these wealthier children are handicapped before the competition really begins. Hopefully this is not the intent of the supporters of the current system, but unfortunately there have been too many scenarios in human history where one individual/group has had no problems “screwing over” another to get ahead even when they do not need to.

In the end a change needs to be made at the basic economic level because even if the appropriate changes are made at the educational level at this point in time, the end result will simply be a society filled with a larger number of well-educated under-employed, if employed at all, frustrated and even possibly angry individuals. Overall it does not appear that the form of capitalism currently practiced by the United States will be able to properly manage this trend and therefore, must evolve in some manner. Whether this evolution is the administration of a GBI, the re-localization of manufacturing, the general abandonment of the “absolute profit above all else” mindset for most corporations or some other significant change is uncertain, except for the fact that such a change must happen. The increasing detrimental economic link between employment and education should simply be viewed as a significant and early warning signal.

Citations –

1. The Rising Cost of Not Going to College. Pew Research Center. Feb 11, 2014.

2. Davis, A, Kimball, W, and Gould, E. “The Class of 2015: Despite an Improving Economy, Young Grads Still Face an Uphill Climb.” Economic Policy Institute. May 27, 2015. http://www.epi.org/publication/the-class-of-2015/