Given our country’s current economic situation, it may seem odd to contemplate a shortfall of college-educated workers. Nonetheless, economists agree that the long-term trajectory of the U.S. economy will require us to produce many more college-educated workers than we currently do. Since 1950, low-skill jobs have remained stable at 20 percent of our workforce, while demand for college-educated workers has more than doubled since the early 1970s.
Prior to the current recession, labor economists Tony Carnevale and Donna Desrochers estimated that the country would face a shortage of 14 million college-educated workers by 2020. Although the current recession has deferred the day when we will see such a shortage, owing to both job losses and postponed retirements, we can nonetheless expect a shortfall to occur eventually. If we cannot produce enough workers to meet demand, the outsourcing of white-collar jobs will grow from a trickle to a flood.
America needs a national strategy to enhance our greatest national resource: the knowledge, skills, drive, and creativity of our people.
What might such a strategy look like?
It must identify and address places along the educational pipeline where we lose students, while ensuring continued vigilance in areas where we lead but the world is catching up. We must focus on high schools, where current academic standards leave many students unprepared to do college-level work. We must offer a GED® assessment that provides the leg up adults need for academic and career success. We must help traditional-aged and older students who are struggling to find the right institution and to figure out how to pay for it. We must engage students on our own campuses, where too many of them fall through the cracks and fail to achieve their educational goals. And we must prevent complacency in our laboratories and graduate seminars to ensure that in the face of heightened competition, we do not lose our international pre-eminence.
As we confront the competitive challenges facing the United States, it is clear that higher education is a linchpin for our economic future. The public understands this: In a recent opinion poll, the public ranked education third in importance for sustaining or improving our quality of life, behind only the economy and jobs. Eighty-four percent of respondents agreed that the investments we make today in higher education will be critical to U.S. competitive leadership 25 years from now.
Our political, business, and philanthropic leaders also understand the vital importance of higher education. They will challenge us to do more, do it better, and—in this economy—do it with less. If we cannot meet this series of challenges, ranging from the GED test to the PhD, we can expect America’s economic competitiveness and standard of living to erode.
I believe there is opportunity in every challenge. We have the opportunity to demonstrate in a meaningful way that we stand behind the quality of our work as educators, that we are first and foremost devoted to the education of students, and that we accept the solemn responsibility to prepare individuals to succeed in an increasingly competitive global environment.
I was gratified that these topics were a major focus of our conversations, both formal and informal, at ACE’s 92nd Annual Meeting, recently held in Phoenix. I assure you that ACE stands ready to help your institution and higher education as a whole meet the challenges before us.
Molly Corbett Broad
American Council on Education