The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), an entity that normally restricts its focus to higher education, has issued a report calling for reforming Virginia’s educational system from stem-to-stern, from pre-K to higher ed. The report, “The Cost of Doing Nothing: An Urgent Call to Increase Educational Attainment in the Commonwealth,” is predicated on the common-sense analogy of an educational “pipeline.” As children and youth move through the educational system, each stage builds upon the stage preceding it. Virginia’s colleges and universities cannot remedy deficiencies in educational achievement that occur long before students apply to college.
The report makes a useful contribution to the public policy debate in Virginia by viewing investments in human capital as a “system” rather than as discrete silos such as pre-K, primary education, secondary education, workforce training, and higher education. Unfortunately, the authors reach the all-too-familiar conclusion that the system requires more programs, more initiatives and mo’ money from taxpayers at every juncture.
By way of background, SCHEV has set the goal for Virginia to become the “best educated state” in the country by 2030, achievable if 70% of Virginia’s working-age population holds a postsecondary credential with at least 50% holding an associate degree or higher. By some metrics, Virginia is on track to meet that goal. But, the report warns, “Warning signs are flashing.”
Among the causes for alarm: educational-attainment gaps for minorities and inhabitants of rural areas. If Northern Virginia’s highly educated population were were removed from consideration, the report observes, then the remainder of the Commonwealth would fall below the national average for educational attainment. Concludes the report:
Without meaningful change, Virginia will not become the best-educated state by 2030 (or any other year). Given current trends, policies, and lack of action, some have proclaimed, astutely, “We can’t get there from here.” This is an unacceptable outcome.
Steve Haner has addressed the glass-half-empty tone of the report in an earlier post, making the points that “Virginia is not doing nothing and to imply so is an insult to a vast group of dedicated people,” and that the biggest barrier between the average Virginian and a state-university degree is “skyrocketing cost and crushing debt.”
I think those are fair criticisms, and I would add two more: (1) the goal of making Virginia the best-educated state in the country may be counter-productive by feeding the destructive phenomenon of credential inflation, and (2) the “educational pipeline” literally starts at home where parents interact with infants in positive or negative ways that profoundly influence the child’s ability later to learn in school. It is highly debatable whether tinkering with the educational system can remedy the deficiencies in child rearing that precede pre-K.
Speaking broadly, there clearly is a relationship between education and economic prosperity. Individuals with advanced degrees tend to be more economically productive than individuals who drop out of high school. Nations with the highest incomes are largely synonymous with nations with the highest rates of educational attainment. But the correlation between education and prosperity is not a perfect one. After a certain point, increased investment in education may suffer from diminishing returns. Indeed, the United States may well have passed the optimum level.
To state as a general rule that education contributes to economic productivity overlooks the reality that not all degrees and credentials are created equal. A degree in engineering and nursing provides a set of skills that have more economic value than, say, degrees in Medieval European history, feminist literary theory, or ancient Slavic languages. That’s not to say that there isn’t value to learning to think and communicate clearly — a supposed benefit of studying the liberal arts — but there is ample grounds to question the extent to which such learning actually takes place in higher education today.
Moreover, many college graduates cannot find a use for their degrees. As Stephen Moret, CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, has pointed out, a significant percentage of college grads are under-employed — they work in jobs that don’t require a college degree.
Now comes a Harvard Business School report that argues that degree inflation — “the rising demand for a four-year college degree for jobs that previously did not require one” — is making the labor market more inefficient. Summarizes the report, “Dismissed by Degrees: How degree inflation is undermining U.S. competitiveness and hurting America’s middle class“:
Postings for many jobs traditionally viewed as middle-skills jobs (those that require employees with more than a high school diploma but less than a college degree) in the United States now stipulate a college degree as a minimum education requirement, while only a third of the adult population possesses this credential.
This phenomenon hampers companies from finding the talent they need to grow and prosper and hinders Americans from accessing jobs that provide the basis for a decent standard of living. In an analysis of more than 26 million job postings, we found that… 67% of production supervisor job postings asked for a college degree, while only 16% of employed production supervisors had one. Our analysis indicates that more than 6 million jobs are currently at risk of degree inflation. …
Our survey indicates that most employers incur substantial, often hidden, costs by inflation degree requirements, while enjoying few of the benefits they were seeking. …
Degree inflation particularly hurts populations with college graduation rates lower than the national average, such as Blacks and Hispanics, age 25 years and older.
Employers don’t benefit from credential inflation. Employees don’t benefit from credential inflation; indeed the cost of acquiring a college degree requires a minimum of a four-year commitment in time and $100,000 or more in tuition, fees, room, and board. But one group does benefit from degree inflation: the colleges, universities and other institutions that confer the degrees. Higher-ed is a special interest like any other, and it should surprise no one that Virginia’s higher-ed establishment supports a goal — making Virginia the best-educated state in the country — that justifies higher-ed’s ever-growing claim on state resources.
Here are the SCHEV report recommendations for addressing the beginning of the student pipeline, Pre-K-12:
- Establish a more integrated and purposeful P‐20 system. Create a
“continuity of experience” from birth, especially for at‐risk children. Fund programs for children that require mentorship throughout childhood.
- Create a plan and budget for ensuring high quality, statewide Pre‐K.
Ensure affordable access to quality early‐educator coursework and
credentialing from high school to baccalaureate degree, in a stackable sequence. Explore and support alternative pathways for early educators to acquire competencies and skills, including coaching and apprenticeships.
- Encourage school districts to collaborate and partner with local non‐
profits and higher‐ed institutions to expand Pre‐K education and child care and to offer after‐school programs.
- Focus on STEM, and especially the Computer Science SOLs, earlier and more rapidly in the educational process.
- Address issues of teacher pay and retention. Invest more in shop/trades/technical curricula and marketing to students. Focus on credential attainment while still in high school. Encourage
members of the business community to visit middle and high schools regularly.
(The report does not define what a P-20 system is. Google defines it as a longitudinal data systems of state-level educational databases designed to capture, analyze, and use student data from preschool to high school, college, and the workforce.
There are some worthy ideas in here — I’m all in favor of data-driven policy — but these recommendations amount to a wish list with no sense of cost or social return on investment of scarce tax dollars. Particularly problematic is increased investment in pre-K. The evidence in favor of pre-K programs is, to be generous, conflicting. The most authoritative data suggests that intensive (and expensive) pre-K programs can improve the educational performance of poor children for several years, but that the effect fades with time.
The germ of insight in the report is that closing the education gap between advantaged and disadvantaged groups must start at the earliest stages of a child’s life. The sticky wicket is that the gap commences before pre-K. It starts at home shortly after childbirth. Poor parents have fewer resources and less time to interact with their infants. Often, their lives are disorganized, marked by the lack of biological fathers, substance abuse, shifting domiciles, and the insecurity of high-crime surroundings. Deep-seated trauma arising from child neglect and abuse create lasting learning problems. The idea that more K-12 programs can reverse the ill effects of a dysfunctional culture of poverty is naive, to say the least. The problems are profound and we, as a society, have no clear idea of how to deal with them. But asking Virginia’s educational system to correct the social pathologies of poverty takes us nowhere.
In sum, there may be a cost do doing nothing, as the SCHEV report suggests. But there is a cost to pursuing futile remedies (K-12 as a palliative for dysfunctional households) and a cost for doing the wrong thing (abetting credential inflation). We need a vigorous debate before making “The Cost of Doing Nothing” a blueprint for public policy and the allocation of taxpayer dollars.There are currently no comments highlighted.