Thinking on a Higher Plane about Higher Education

Stephen Moret, CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP), brought a wealth of experience in corporate recruitment and workforce training when he moved to Virginia from Louisiana. But there’s another aspect of Virginia’s economic development chief that has gained little notice here in the Old Dominion. Last year he earned a doctorate in higher education management from the University of Pennsylvania.

The Ed.D. dissertation that Moret completed last year, “Attainment, Alignment, and Economic Opportunity in America: Linkages Between Higher Education and the Labor Market,” examines the connection between higher education and economic development in the United States, often challenging the conventional wisdom in the process. His findings are worth considering here in Virginia.

Two propositions are widely and uncritically accepted in the Old Dominion: (1) a highly educated workforce is good for economic development, and (2) therefore, we should invest more in higher education. Accordingly, the Virginia Plan for Higher Education sets the goal of making Virginia the best educated state in the U.S. by 2030. The plan articulates the rationale:

An educated population and well-trained workforce increase economic competitiveness, improve the lives of individuals and support greater community engagement. The best-educated state means that Virginia supports higher education at all levels. This spectrum includes workforce credentials such as industry certifications, state licensures, apprenticeships and certificates, as well as traditional degrees.

Moret does not contest the link between an educated workforce and economic development. But the relationship is a complicated one, he says. His dissertation suggests that it is possible to invest too much in higher ed, or invest in the wrong places. Among other issues, Moret discusses the problem of “malemployment,” a form of underemployment in which four-year degree holders work in jobs requiring less education. He worries that many college graduates lack the critical thinking skills needed to succeed in the workplace. And he notes that the benefits from investing in higher education are highly uneven among the states.

Malemployment. Malemployment is a widespread problem in the U.S. Approximately one-quarter to one-third of all college graduates and roughly 45% of recent college graduates are working in jobs that do not require college-level skills. Altogether, about 10 million FTFY (full-year, full-time) employees with a bachelor’s degree are malemployed nationally, working as retail sales clerks, truck drivers, food service managers, cashiers and other occupations.

“Proponents of higher college degree attainment often emphasize the higher earnings and lower unemployment rates enjoyed by college graduates in comparison to those of individuals whose formal education ended with a high school diploma,” writes Moret. “The reality is that significant numbers of college graduates do not secure employment in occupations that require and/or make meaningful use of college-level skills. They often experience much lower earnings premiums as well as lower job satisfaction than their peers.”

The phenomenon varies widely by type of degree. Science and engineering degrees tend to have the lowest rate of malemployment, arts & humanities among the highest rates.

“The sheer size of the malemployed population as well as the nature of the occupations that many malemployed individuals hold suggest this is a widespread and serious issue in the U.S.,” says Moret, calling into question the simplistic idea that a college education is a sure pathway to well-compensated employment.

Critical thinking. Most full-time faculty members at colleges and universities consider development of critical thinking skills (99%) and effective writing skills (93%) to be essential or very important goals of an undergraduate education. Employers say they are looking for the same skills. All too often, degree earners are not gaining mastery of them. At a few institutions, students lose proficiency at college.

Quoting from an academic source, Moret says:

Many seniors graduate without being able to write well enough to satisfy their employers. Many cannot reason clearly or perform competently in analyzing complex, nontechnical problems, even though faculties rank critical thinking as the primary goal of a college education. Few undergraduates receiving a degree are able to speak or read a foreign language. Most have never taken a course in quantitative reasoning.

Many studies of the connection between education and economic growth have focused on years of schooling or educational attainment as the key predictor, says Moret. But recent research has shown that the real predictor is cognitive skills, which may or may not be obtained in college. (I would bet that there is a large overlap between these cognitive under-achievers and college grads experiencing malemployment.)

Migration and educational attainment. Highly educated, recent college graduates are the most likely of any demographic group to move from one state to another. Individuals with a bachelor’s degree are twice as likely to complete an interstate move as those with a high school degree; Ph.D.s are three times as likely. Likewise, people in their 20s and early 30s are more likely to move than any other age group.

Some states export college-level talent to other states, in effect losing the fiscal investment they made in their students, while other states are talent importers, reaping the benefit of others’ investments. The Great Lakes states are the biggest exporters, followed by the Mid-Atlantic, New England and the Plains states. For every 100 bachelor’s degrees conferred in Michigan, the state has lost 22.

Says Moret:

When college degree production substantially exceeds demand in a state, college graduates tend to complete interstate moves in order to secure better employment outcomes. Collectively, these findings suggest that the economic payoff of a college degree is much greater in some states than others, and state leaders must be careful to ensure that their college degree attainment initiatives are not misaligned with the labor market demands of their economies.

Traditionally, Virginia has been a talent “importing” state, which has contributed to the Washington metropolitan area, including Northern Virginia, having the best educated workforce of any metro in the country. The Old Dominion has benefited from other states’ investment in higher education. However, in recent years, coinciding with sequestration and Virginia’s economic slowdown, Virginia has shifted to a talent-exporting state (although the number of people leaving the state is relatively small). Despite this transition, the state forges ahead with a strategic higher-ed plan calling for awarding more degrees, certifications and apprenticeships. Will supply exceed demand? Will we end up exporting talent? Are we investing excessively in higher ed — or perhaps in the wrong places, producing too many B.A. degrees and too few certifications for skills that are demonstrably in demand?

Virginia’s public policy leaders are not asking such questions — or, if they are, their deliberations are not reflected in the news media. But the issues Moret raises in his dissertation are profoundly important. With an economy in the doldrums and a state budget facing chronic stress, Virginians must question all of their hoary assumptions in order to make better use of the state’s limited resources.

As a member of the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia, Moret is in a position to ask the questions that no one else in authority is asking. Let us hope he makes the most of the opportunity.

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2 responses to “Thinking on a Higher Plane about Higher Education

  1. Government generally is very much like the military: They both fight the last war, not the current one. With few exceptions, the incentives in public service are against up-to-date thinking. The private sector can on occasion be as bad, particularly in near monopoly situations. You will remember the old saw among IT procurement professionals: “Nobody ever got fired for buying Big Blue.” Like Microsoft Windows, however, the near monopoly enjoyed by Big Blue had more to do with the establishment of a vast user base rather than any monopolistic practices, as proven by the demise of DOJ’s anti-trust case against Big Blue. The free market and lateral thinking (small decentralized PC’s and networks instead of mainframes) was more responsible for Big Blue’s downfall as a major player than anything else.

    See also, Jason Riley’s interview with Ben Carson in today’s WSJ. Carson encountered huge resistance when he advocated and tried new approaches to surgery for babies born with achondroplasia, a common form of dwarfism. Other doctors complained that he was a wild man. His approach is now standard procedure. Carson’s comment: “People don’t like change”. Quaere: would he have been allowed to do what he did under a single payer government system?

  2. This is a very fine article. Mr. Moret, who we have encountered here recently before, is obviously a very talented, out of the box practical thinker and doer. The increasingly rare public servant who focuses on what is going on in the real world so as to devise ways to fix real everyday problems that afflict everyday people. This is an exceedingly rare commodity today.

    In fact, for example, most leaders of the higher education establishment today in far too many institutions have largely abandoned the education of the students at all levels in order to shift institutional resources, including their own time and effort, to pursue their own personal gain. This, for example, was obviously the primary motivating force behind the recent short sighted and extremely unbalanced focus of STEM “education” at UVA found in a cooked up report that had little to do with educating students to deal with the real world but rather to promote the personal interests, advancement and promotion of special interests within the Higher education establishment, namely the private interests of a growing segment of senior faculty and administrators and their sponsors and abettors (who too often are private commercial and political interests) trying to hijack public policy and monies for private gain. And these interests at the moment are winning big time.

    Consider that the privately funded study likely done at the instigation of UVA senior Administrators concluded that the teaching of English writing, English literature, History, and philosophy was inefficient and counter-productive because in forced students and faculty to teach how to use and deploy words, and think in words, instead using the “far more efficient” numbers. Hence UVA’s resources (money, people, time and attention) should be reallocated from Traditional undergraduate arts and sciences to STEM research, and Big Classroom teaching promoting it through focus on numbers and equations instead of words. Contrast that to Moret’s thinking and approach as explained in above article.

    Of course Moret’s thinking goes far beyond this narrow misguided report on the efficiency of education students in STEM. Its as if he has spent some time on a military learning how the military, the Marines anyway, teach young people to do meaningful work, that is perform at a very high level jobs critically needed to keep our nation safe. Virginia is lucky to have Mr. Moret aboard.

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