Georgetown U's Carnevale: Unbundling is 'separating gold from gravel'

A leading expert on labor and higher ed shares insights on future of intertwined industries

Anthony Carnevale has spent nearly a lifetime analyzing the numbers, trends and outcomes of labor on American economy. With three presidential appointments to his credit and executive stops in the U.S. Congress, Educational Testing Service and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, he is regarded among the world’s leading experts on workforce development and economic outcomes tied to industry.

Since 2007, Carnevale has served as the founding director of the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce, spearheading dozens of reports highlighting the social, political and industrial trends of the changing higher education landscape. We talked with him recently about these trends, how colleges and universities should adapt, and the future of higher education as an industry.

EDUCATION DIVE: Can you give us some of the guiding principles behind the center, and Georgetown’s support of it?

ANTHONY CARNEVALE: I founded the center with support from Georgetown and private foundations in 2007. The reason is that, it has become very difficult to separate learning and earning in modern societies. In the 1970’s three-quarters of Americans had high school or less, and they were doing fine. And as we see from the Trump campaign, they aren’t doing fine anymore, and they are angry about it. What became apparent over decades beginning in the 80’s, was that talking about jobs was talking about education. And by the 90’s, it was clear that if you didn’t get education, you weren’t going to do well. To some extent, this is an uncomfortable fact, because it creates a tension between the traditional roles of higher education of promoting human flourishing in general, and its modern economic role which is powerful; two-thirds of jobs now require some form of postsecondary education. And the value of that education has doubled, so now we live in a world where the public understands, almost 80% of people say they go to college to get a job and to have a career.

The other fact that makes all of this important, is that college isn’t a monolithic benefit. What you make depends on what you take; it’s not about institutions anymore, but the program that you are in. A petroleum engineer makes $120,000 a year, and someone in early childhood education makes $30,000. So just going and graduating is no longer enough. And many people, between 17-20% of college educated workers in America are really not in college jobs. Sometimes, more education is worth less, so that we know 44% of bachelor’s degrees make more than people with master’s degrees, depending on field of study. 30% of two year degrees make more than the average bachelor’s degree. Certificates that are very applied, like heating ventilation and air conditioning, make more than the average college graduate, and these are very male-dominated certificates. It’s kind of a new ballgame.

That principle has taken the center into a lot of interesting places. It’s touched on race, politics, geography. Was the intention to be disruptive, or did you find in your work an "oh crap" moment where you realized higher education was heading in a very different direction?

CARNEVALE: It’s more of the "oh crap" thing. In America, no matter what you do, if you dig down below the surface, you hit race. And then we started down this road of tying education to opportunity, we bumped into what are, in the end, racial biases in the higher education system. It is driven, the business model, is one of exclusion, so that to the extent that it thrives and grows, it excludes more and more. This is not to blame higher education leaders, they are doing what is natural to them and with, as far as I know, with no racial intentions, but given that the system essentially operates as a competition for students whose parents have checkbooks and test scores, and those two things go together. When you run the numbers, you can’t help but noticing that there is increasing stratification in higher education by race and class, and that has real consequences because that also means inequality in access and resources. Like it or not, intentionally or not, higher education has become more of the nation’s economic system and also a passive participant in ensuring intergenerational reproduction of race and class advantage.

But from a labor perspective, the majority of people getting higher education are getting credentialed to be managers and CEOs, but the majority of the workforce is not that. So have you found any interesting intersections about who can get higher education and who provides it, versus what the marketplace actually needs?

CARNEVALE: We thought in the 1970’s we were headed for an economy where we would lose all of the manufacturing jobs, the service jobs were lousy, and that we were going to be in trouble because of automation and globalization. What actually happened, we created a highway service economy, so markets began to value education aggressively, and when markets get involved, they will rationalize value; they will find where the high economic value is and go there. That’s why we had the onslaught of for-profit schools, suddenly education which is a 500 billion business now, markets have intervened. Nobody thinks of higher education, from an economic perspective, as four-year colleges anymore. Now, the common phrase is postsecondary education and training. Maybe 15% of boys out of high school can still get a decent construction or manufacturing job and work their way up, but women can’t get anything out of the system without going to college, and 70-85% of boys can go, but don’t.

So we now have 2,200 or more fields of study provided by an increasingly diverse set of institutions, from people who are selling MOOCs to corporations to technical schools. So the industry has grown by leaps and bounds, and in a lot of ways, it’s out of control. We have no quality standards that matter, accreditation doesn’t do the job because it has nothing to do with the job, so we’re in the process of trying to build a regulatory structure for a $500 billion industry. This means that at the margins, making money means throwing away the lacrosse team, the chapel and the quad; you get a building downtown and you sell a program that works. Markets are unbundling higher education, and separating gold from gravel and selling it.

But that raises an interesting question: If we’re having conversation about employability, now we’re talking about mutually exclusive things. So a school that specializes in textiles, but the area around you now is growing in nanotechnology, you’re essentially saying to higher education as an industry ‘throw that out, throw the buildings, the accreditation, the professors out, and let’s bring in a new faculty and teach this now. And even this could change?

CARNEVALE: And in most other industrial sectors in America, that’s life. Apple just put out a phone, and if it doesn’t sell, they don’t make any money. Education is more market driven, but are we going to throw away general education? Most people don’t want to do that, 80% of students say they come to college to be able to enter into a career, but 70% of students say they go to school to learn things that interest them. The market will take care of the stuff that’s valuable, and the government will have to take care of the rest. There are politicians who think we ought to throw away all of the stuff but the things which have economic value; I think that’s disastrous. And it won’t happen, because rich people will still be able to send their kids to Georgetown because their kids will be able to get both. You can come here and major in Japanese horror films, and go to graduate school and that’s how you get your job.

So what is happening is that people who get both, are more affluent and more white all of the time. More and more, the shift to job training is becoming an issue, and people who get a liberal arts education with 60-70% of courses you take being out of your major; the market is saying the 30% is what’s valuable, and we’ll pluck that out and sell it.

And that 70% is what helps you to be a better writer, or a critical thinker, or to give you the flexibility to work with labor unions and with political organizations. It seems like industry is pushing students to pick one, and if you make the wrong choice based on how industry changes, you are done?

CARNEVALE: In the end, it’s a matter of who gets what. THe broader experience is better for you as a person to explore and to stumble into ideas and experiences you wouldn’t have otherwise. We know that people who only get technical education are dramatically less informed, less adaptive. Markets affect all of us; you can have a lot of experience and education and still lose a job. As a society, we’re committed to human flourishing, so as a republic the product is not an iPhone, but a person developed in their own way and developed in freedom. Denying that to some and giving it to others, in the United States thankfully, that causes a lot of tension.

It gets to be tricky because mobility in most people’s minds means money, so its tempting to see somebody and get them job training, but the broader human development isn’t as urgent and doesn’t happen. So it’s a matter of privilege to get access to a full education, and you see governors are taking away programs in language, area studies and focusing more on STEM, career aspects, and in defense of them, they are sitting with a budget and have to decide do I put more money into French Literature or engineering? Engineering is going to get somebody a job; French literature not so much.

You guys have put out information like African-Americans choosing lower paying jobs out of college, you’ve done it by state, and a variety of demographics on how labor and education intersect to offer predictive perspective. Where do you see higher education as an industry, where does it go before 2020? Will there be fewer schools, or smaller schools? THe government is trending that way, and the marketplace is trending that way.

CARNEVALE: The realist in me says that with money short and all of it going to people like me going to social security and Medicare, smaller shares are going to young people and the development of American workers. And young people support us; they want to see us continue to get Medicare and social security, but we don’t support them. And it’s because they don’t look like our grandchildren.

There’s research going back to the 19th century, the more Irish immigrants you had in Boston, the less spending there was in school, because people don’t spend money on people who don’t look like them. The economic rationalization process will continue, and there is going to be a demand for outcome driven regulation. There won’t be much focus on general learning, tt will be very job focused, and more colleges will get that way. But the push back should be that general education needs to remain. The other issue is stratification by race and class. So affirmative action, by another name, needs to happen, and it has to be more than letting in 2-3% of kids into Harvard.

Filed Under: Higher Ed
Top image credit: Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce