Dr. Jeff Strohl, Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce: Is Education Still the Great Equalizer?
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Welcome to WorkforceRx with Futuro Health, where future-focused leaders in education, workforce development, and healthcare explore new innovations and approaches. I’m your host Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health.
The disconnect between workers looking for jobs and employers looking for workers continues to bedevil the U.S. economy, adding urgency to the search for solutions to the skills gap that is partly responsible for the trend. One resource that economists, workforce development experts, employers, educators, and policymakers turn to for insights on these questions is the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. That’s why I’m happy to welcome the Director of Research at the Center to WorkforceRx today. In that role, Dr. Jeff Strohl focuses on how to quantify skills and better understand competencies in the ever-changing workplace. He also leads investigations into the supply and demand of education, and how education enhances career opportunities for today’s workforce. Thanks so much for joining us today, Jeff.
Dr. Jeff Strohl: Thank you for having me, Van. Good to see you.
Van: Good to see you. I’m such a big fan of the Center and I’ve often quoted many of the reports over the years. Perhaps you can start by giving our audience a quick overview of your work and your current focus.
Jeff: Thank you. Historically, the Center started bringing together research at the nexus of education and the labor market as they overlap. Most higher education researchers don’t think about the labor market, and most labor market economists tend to treat education as a dummy and a regression. So, there’s a space to look at the overlap in the articulation between the two, and I think that is where we started.
My work, along with our director, has focused on equity and understanding why it is and how it is and where it is that we have socio-economic differentials in outcomes. We have developed a basic model of using test scores to start from an even base to then identify differences in test scores to make the strong statement that while we believe that education is a great equalizer, in fact, it is not. We have systemic biases in outcomes that just are not explained by college readiness. I think that’s a really important message as we think about outcomes in a kind of “blame-the-victim” framework…that there are structural inequalities in place that hold back the most talented low-income and minority youth. So that’s a real mainstay through much of our work.
The second line, of course, is we wouldn’t be the Center on Education and the Workforce if we weren’t doing work on the workforce. So, we also do an awful lot of investigation on emerging data and how they can become modernized labor market information knowing that most of our labor market information really goes back to the 1930s when they were trying to develop an unemployment insurance wage record data system. All of a sudden, we’re in the modern age with a lot of different data and people are struggling to figure out how to use this to be accurate labor market information to move the needle so that we can basically catch up with the modern age.
A lot of the work that we’re doing today is on trying to specify economic value by exact program of study and by institution, trying to understand how that interacts with localized labor markets, and also to turn that around. You, Van, helped spearhead a lot of this work in California with the community college system: how do institutions turn around and use labor market information to rationalize their enrollment decisions and resource allocation? I mean, the worst possible thing that we can do is have a great program that’s oversubscribed because all we end up doing is creating really smart people who don’t have a job, or at least have a job in their field. Working in field is really critical to finding economic opportunity. Trying to create that feedback loop is really where we’re sitting these days, and then also using that information to think about counseling for the actual students to help guide them.
Van: Jeff, you mentioned so many substantive areas. Let me just go back to even the first point that you made in terms of equity and what explains the socio-economic differential. Does that tie into what’s happening in many big systems, which are rethinking standardized tests and the use of standardized tests as being somewhat biased?
Jeff: Yes, that’s a hard question. Because on the one hand, our center bases some of this research on using those standardized exams as a baseline. If we think about the bias in the SAT and other tests, we’re sometimes thinking about the historic trajectory that gets you to the door of taking the exam. We have a history rife with using the word “yacht” and having people not knowing that because it’s not in their culture, and so you do have those kinds of biases. Now, ETS will claim, or the College Board will claim, to have removed these. I really don’t follow this as much. I think we do have a problem in post-secondary education with figuring out what do we replace standardized tests with? Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that they’re bias-free. What do we replace them with? Is that going to be a better solution? Is that going to provide the university system with something that is more fair and more clear?
I personally believe in a portfolio. I think the test can be guiding for us to understand someone’s level of college readiness, but we also have to understand that it’s a probability statement. I mean, the graduation differential between 1000 and 1200 or 1250 on the SAT is more explained by the selectivity of the institution that somebody goes to than it is by the differences in those test scores. It’s only built to predict freshman GPA. No one uses it to predict graduation rate, right? So, we need to use it to understand whether or not a student is college-prepared but maybe stop there, and then take a look at a broader portfolio of things that someone has in their qualifications.
Van: In the third point that you were making about the use of labor market information, I love many of your reports. But one of your reports is about the earning power of many of the STEM pathways. Yet, many of these degrees and programs are woefully undersubscribed by students. What’s your advice in terms of matching students and majors, or degrees, to those needed by the labor market?
Jeff: There are two levels. One is very systemic. There was a very good article in the New York Times a few days ago about the insights of students who go to the selective, test-based high schools across the country, mostly in New York. One of the things that was shown in there is the removal of advanced courses from some low-income schools making it so that students aren’t prepared for extremely rigorous courses in high school or in college. Not that they can’t do it, but they’re not given the resources along the way so they hit high school without having had Algebra 1.
So, that’s one part of the problem — resource allocation across the entire system. That’s going to be a long-term problem for us to resolve, and it’s one that needs a resolution because it’s the pipeline. We’ve got about three million high school students every year and about 2.2 to 2.6 million high school enrollees. If they’re not coming in prepared, they’re never going to make it through STEM, and then they’re going to switch majors and things like that. That’s one part of the problem.
Another part of the problem — which has really been investigated and brought to our awareness over the last twenty to thirty years – is role models and expectational formation. If you go into a university, say MIT in 1965, your professors would have been male and they would have been white. If you are neither of the above, you didn’t have a lot of indications that you were welcome in that culture. If we look at economists, still today, women are woefully underrepresented. They hit glass ceilings in faculty promotion and in the working world. They run into multiple barriers of a culture that doesn’t welcome them.
A lot of good work is going on trying to address this from multiple angles. As we know, first-time college-going students generally don’t have the same type of counseling resources inside the home. If you don’t have a parent who went to college, you can barely sort out how to navigate the complexities of college with financial aid and major choice, etcetera. There’s a lot of evidence that without counseling, students fall back on the opinions of their peers. We need to find this balance of counseling with good information to tell people “you can actually do this” when they historically have been told “you can’t do this thing,” and also try to balance interest versus earnings. This, I think, is a very big problem. We did some work with the Gates Foundation on their value commission in looking at redistributing to re-equalize, or find equity in, distribution by men and women in majors. Guess what? If you balance gender and majors, you have no nurses, you have no teachers, you have no preschool. So, we have a social problem. We rely on, in this case, women to do low-paying, what we call ICP — Intellectual and Caring Professions. It’s to society’s benefit to have cheap labor sources in these fields and not pipe them into STEM.
We need to figure out how to have this balance, right? It’s a challenge. It’s a dual challenge in creating it as being an interesting field of work. Young people need better examples about what the workplace looks like so people can find an interest in it, because if you didn’t grow up in a science-based home, why would you be interested in the STEM field? You have no role model. Secondly, I think we need to be much more serious about the preparation necessary to be ready for upper-level calculus. I mean, I failed out of college when I first started, and calculus was the reason. It took me ten years to get good enough to go back and finish college. I come from a middle-class background and so I had a lot of support. Imagine if you had no support.
Van: To a prior point of yours, which is around STEM, I remember hearing the head of Harvey Mudd — which is an engineering college — say that in prior days, the framing used to be you look to your left and you look to your right, and one out of the three of you will be gone, right? She said that it took a lot of work on the culture to be able to reframe it to say, you can look to your right and your left, and all three of you can succeed. You need to not only put in the work, but you need to ask for help early enough. So, it was very interesting on the framing in order to change the numbers. Success for women has really risen as a result of that revised framing
Jeff: That’s great.
Van: Jeff, there was a Washington Post article a few months ago that talked about the fact that there were 10 million open jobs, with about 8.4 million people looking for jobs. Basically, the employers couldn’t find the workers, and the workers couldn’t find the work. Those numbers have gone up and down since then, but could we have foreseen this level of friction in the labor market?
Jeff: It depends on from which perspective. Pre-pandemic, perhaps not. Maybe in a science fiction story — understanding what happened with wanting to be near another human being and that becoming dangerous, and the great impact that had on human touch industries — theoretically, yes, that part would have been predictable. I don’t know about the differentials in labor market participation as women have been locked into the home on child and family care, causing some of the labor shortage. So that’s one aspect. It’s a little unclear if we would have been able to predict it. We have had long-term declines in labor market participation that should make some of this predictable.
We’ve got to remember that we were actually peaking into boom times prior to the pandemic. We had a ten-year ramp-up following the Great Recession. In 2016, ’17, ’18, the economy was beginning to warm up, and already we were hearing about skills gap problems from the employers. So, some of the frictional issues stem back to the employers treating the market as a spot market for workers. In ’93, we had the beginning of what was identified as a “jobless recovery” in which employers moved from a layoff to a fire model. In doing so, they basically treat workers as a spot commodity. If you’ve got an increase in demand, you think you can instantaneously find a worker. There’s been a disinvestment in the kind of training that’s necessary to take people from qualifying to productivity. Now, we’re seeing in this time with this very tight labor market, the return of both incentives and a lot of training from internal sources. So, we are trying to deal with the friction.
One of the things that I think wasn’t predictable is the “Great Resignation” aspect of this. We now have some of the highest quit rates seen in the history of recorded job transactions in the United States. We had 64 million people quit their jobs between August and August 2020 to 2021, and we had about 74 million hires. That is an amazing amount of churn in the labor market and some of that is driven by restructuring that occurs with a shock to the economy — like the pandemic moving away from touch to non-touch or less-touch services — and that kind of change-up. Those things are specific, and not in general predictable. The economy goes through structural changes and those structural changes, historically, in the United States, have led us upwards in skill requirements and have introduced or been accompanied by automation.
I expect this pandemic to be accompanied by automation to reduce human touch in the services industry. But the thing is, I don’t think we should be afraid of that part. Because historically, a lot of automation has actually been a labor complement, not a labor substitute. So, hopefully, this friction — and you’re quite right, it’s painful — is, in fact, short-term. I’m not as hopeful as others that it’s going to be gone tomorrow. I think these types of things take some time, and so we’re probably looking at…I’m going to guess a year, maybe two of residual frictions, and they’re going to differ by sector. We’ve got to remember that this pandemic slammed the less-educated portion of the labor market, and the BA portion of the labor market. Computer programmers actually increased employment during the height of the pandemic. So, there’s different pressures going on simultaneously here.
Van: You know every crisis creates an opportunity. What opportunity is created by this moment?
Jeff: It’s a good question. I think it’s an opportunity for employers to put some more skin in the game and to really re-engage investment in the workforce on-site. From the educators’ perspective, I think this could be enhanced work-based learning opportunities, which especially need to be linked to their programs. Currently, my understanding is that too many work-based learning opportunities are not attached to program, so students have to wander around campus to find them. If you attach them to a program, they’re delivered to the student rather than the student having to discover them. Then it might help us alleviate some of the known inequities in availability of internships, apprenticeships, or other forms of work-based learning.
The idea of bringing the workplace and the classroom closer and closer together and providing diverse opportunities to a diverse population of students would be one angle to take on this. What we need is more and more alignment between education and training, and job requirements so that we maintain the ability to move with the punches, which we have. That’s one of the benefits of the American education system…the idea that we have a system that moves with the punches. In that idea of work-based learning is the notion to stop treating training as something that is bad. We have a view that training is a bad thing and isn’t as good as education — and there are reasons for that which go back to race and class-based tracking. But on the other hand, a large portion of the workforce goes to school but also changes jobs. Every single time you change a job, you need some form of training to find a new occupation or a new job. So training, while different than we traditionally conceptualize education, is extremely critical. It’s time for us to level them on the same field.
Rather than education and training, I look at it as overall human capital development…having that system be able to meet the student and the worker where they are. Sometimes you’re in school, which will be our formal education, but sometimes you’re in the labor market and you need something that’s going to help you make a move from where you are — maybe unemployment, or a declining job, or a bad job — to a better job. Oftentimes that requires several months of training or a certification, all of which are considered training, and people look down their noses at it and they shouldn’t.
Hopefully, this is an opportunity for us to see them as complements, rather than exclusive elements that one person gets training and one person gets education. I’ll repeat, that problem exists because training has a very bad history when we look through the lens of vocational education and race and class-based tracking. We have to figure out how to solve that problem while gaining the benefits of enhanced training investments.
Van: What is your read of the big decline in higher education enrollment across the nation as reported by the National Student Clearinghouse, then?
Jeff: That’s a tough one. I don’t know enough about it, but my instinct is about uncertainties in the labor market. Things dealing with home, especially for women, in that case. Also not feeling as though virtual learning in the college environment is worth the kind of money that you need to pay. That’s one aspect.
The other aspect, which isn’t talked about a lot, is the fact that education is a probability statement, and often it is treated as something that’s exact. We say to students, “Get an education and you will have opportunity.” That’s a statement of certainty. Where in fact, there’s a good chance that you’ll get a good opportunity, but there is no guarantee that you’ll get a good opportunity. So, the combination of seeing the questionable value of virtual learning in the college environment, uncertainty in the labor market, and education not being a straight-up guarantee for opportunity could be driving some of this down.
I expect it to return, maybe in slightly hybrid format. I don’t mean hybrid in virtual versus in-person learning, but in the skill buckets that we put together. I foresee that the traditional degrees will hold their place in this. But if we look at the data on certifications, in particular, we see that these are held by people at all levels of education, and when they get them, they get a significant earnings premium. What this really suggests is that formal education needs updating, and updating can occur through some of these short bites. I’m looking through the lens of certifications, which have a particular value because of their validation and clarity of what they are signaling. When they’re good, they’re very good measures of validation that somebody can do something like HVAC, or Delco brakes, or management certifications…things like that. I foresee that kind of hybrid coming up where you’ve got more short bites but on top of a foundation of a formal education.
Van: Well, I believe it’s your center that originated the phrase, “Degrees are important, but skills matter.”
Jeff: Yes, that’s probably my boss.
Van: Right. That’s why certifications and credentialing become important in order to get those bites, as you’ve mentioned. Anything else you want to mention? I know you’re active in the credentialing-as-you-go efforts. Anything on the horizon that excites you there?
Jeff: Well, we have a big problem in this area, as you’re most likely aware, which is information. There’s so many certifications and providers, and not enough information on which ones matter. I hope to see more transparent information on certifications. The current US Labor Market Survey asks about whether or not you have a certification. The problem there is, they don’t ask which one. I think it’s sensible to look at what somebody is doing for work to infer what it is, but it would be nice to get more information.
The work that was done there in California by SkillBuilders in understanding how course clusters lead to enhanced skills is another area that could be very exciting. The focus on short-term certifications and awards lets us understand how much reactivity in education can enable the workforce. I think this is really important, and that probably is going to start to raise questions about accreditation, like how quickly can formal education react to the market? If it can’t react quickly, and we still need it, what do we do?
Alternative metrics are important because we don’t want snake oil salesmen out there poaching off the federal dollar, as we saw with crises with for-profits and student loan debt. We want to make sure we have as much accountability and as much clarity for students on what they’re getting…that they are, in fact, getting what they’re paying for. Hopefully, this focus on the short-term credentials will actually help that effort.
Van: Are there some missteps that keep repeating themselves when it comes to education and the workforce?
Jeff: That’s a really tough question, because what we have is a national agreement to have a free market system with limited regulation. So, we’re faced with letting the market create experiments. Sometimes they work out and sometimes they don’t. I think about what George Will said about the banking crisis in the 1980s. He said we have a strange breed of capitalism in which the profits are private, but we socialize the losses. In many ways, that’s the misstep that we keep making — having public dollars basically fund R&D on educational experiments, but not hold private parties accountable for student losses and the education system as a whole.
I think this whole student debt problem is indicative of the other problems you’re mentioning, with the failure with for-profits at different points in time. We need to figure out how to have accountability, and this is where we are seeing data systems move, so that we’re much more able to provide students with the information.
I think the next move here — and maybe this is a misstep, too — is the assumption that students are able to make rational decisions with massive amounts of information. I think that’s a mistake. If I go to some of these college websites, they’ve got 1,000 courses and they’ve got this and that. I wouldn’t know what to do with it, so I can’t imagine how students with less informational literacy would deal with these problems. We need to find a way to help summarize the massive amounts of information to a set of information that’s critical. The idea of data as transparency and accountability is an actionable statement. We just can’t lay data on the table or lay data on the internet and say, “Well, there you go. You ought to be able to figure it out.” I really challenge a Ph.D. to go sort their way through the data that’s out there and provide clear guidance to a 17-year-old that will help them in setting a direction for their life.
It’s tough, and we need to do a lot of work in this area. There’s an informational overload problem that we have to figure our way through in this education/workforce space.
Van: I remember when I was back at the California Community Colleges we were looking at how to make data actionable for students and looking at the career guidance. We wanted to figure out what kind of tool could we create. In the focus groups that we did with the Young Invincibles, it came down to three elements, or factors, for decision-making of young people: one was interest and aptitude, and how they match programs; the second is actually commuting radius; the third is earning power. Those became the most important out of all the other ways of making decisions.
Jeff: Oh, that’s very interesting.
Van: Jeff, what has been your most significant study or report, or study that you’re most excited about?
Jeff: Probably my favorite work has been our “separate and unequal” work, which is really a whole body of work trying to understand socioeconomic disparities in college attendance and labor market outcomes. We did a report called Born to Win, Schooled to Lose, showing how low-income, high- performing students end up with worse outcomes than low-scoring, high-income students. To quote my boss, he said. “In the United States, it’s better to be rich than smart.” I think that body of work is really important for people to think about because if they’re like me, they grew up in an environment of education being a great equalizer…that we have a meritocracy. We do have elements of meritocracy in our society, but we also have a lot of obstacles to merit and how it shifts things. I think that’s an interesting bit of work.
Now with the resurgence of affirmative action cases hitting the Supreme Court, we’ve done a couple of experimental pieces looking at what would happen if you had an SAT-only admissions policy and how that would affect the racial distribution in the selective institutions. It’s pretty profound, and not as people would expect. One of the pieces that really pops up here is that all groups have benefited by different forms of, let me just say, “affirmative action.” People might not want to apply that to whites, but if you went to a test-only admissions model, something around 45% or 50% of white students in most selective institutions would be displaced out of those institutions and replaced by high-scoring white or students of another ethnicity or race who didn’t go.
A lot of that gets back to expectational formation. I think that’s an interesting bit of work for people to consider, because in this body, there’s this underlying belief that these low income and minority students can’t handle the selective institutions. The data we have based on students going to these selective institutions do demonstrate that they’re able to do well, and that if you move them up the tiers of selectivity holding test score content, their graduation rate goes up, which is counter to some things in some amicus briefs on affirmative action. The idea that we’re doing a disservice for minorities by putting them in challenging schools is a crock. Anyway, I won’t go down that line too much, but those are really important bodies of work, at least to me. Other pieces have gotten more press, but I think those ones are pretty important.
Van: All of us are focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Any advice on DEI as it relates to what students study? I think you alluded a little bit to counseling, so I would love to hear your thoughts on this.
Jeff: Yes, this is a question whose answer changes from the perspective of who’s asking. The reason I say that is, just yesterday, I was part of a technical working group trying to think about developing a curriculum for a graduate program. The person who was working on this said, “People ask me why we don’t have a graduate course on diversity or equity.” He said it’s because it should be part of every course that we have. So, I think that’s one piece of advice. DEI is measurable at times, but it’s also a contextual environment which we need to move ourselves into. That’s a systemic reform issue. If I was a systems administrator, I would be answering it in those terms. As a student thinking about it, DEI is an abstract concept, right? It’s more about, I would think, opportunity for the individual.
This goes back to that New York Times article I was mentioning about students in the high-performing, test-based high schools around the country, New York in particular. Even though about 60% percent were Asian, they said it’s still very diverse because there’s a melting pot of Asian ethnicity in the United States that people don’t recognize. So, for these students at that school, they worked their butts off to get there. For them, looking down the hallway, they see people from thirty or forty different countries, as first-generation, low-income students. DEI for them isn’t the way an academic is thinking about it. It’s hard-earned opportunity that’s sitting in front of them.
From the individual’s perspective, the answer is not really about DEI, but about a better understanding of the frontier of opportunity of which they’re capable of achieving. I think it was George W. Bush who talked about the tyranny of low expectations. Well, for those individual students, DEI is something that society attains when they take on the challenge of rising to their highest potential, knowing that there are a lot of systemic obstacles, because I want to be very careful and not play a blame-the-victim game. I think we have indigeneity going on here. For some of those students it’s believing that they can do it, and many of them do because we see them making it. Don’t be limited by the choices that are immediately in front of you.
This goes back to the counseling. Regretfully, we don’t put a huge investment in counseling. We need to, because we lose so many students of great talent and the country suffers from the loss of that talent. We lose about one-fifth of the high school class not making it through college. About 15-20% of the top half of the high school class above 1,000 on the SAT don’t graduate college. They get all the debt and none of the benefits of a college education. We need to do more to get rid of the obstacles that result in students not even get listened to, and not even making it through the door. It’s a hard problem, which we all have to band together to resolve. It’s a systemic approach and an individual approach. Currently, I think that the barriers to the individuals and the systemic obstacles are probably the biggest part of the problem.
Van: I like the phrasing of rising to everyone’s highest potential despite the systemic barriers that are in front of all of us. I think all of us who are in workforce development or touch higher education think about what we can do to reduce some of those frictions that are in the way. So, Jeff, we are wrapping up and I was wondering if you had any final comments for our audience?
Jeff: Just thank you for the opportunity to chat with you. It’s great to see you, and a great topic and I hope it impacts your listeners out there.
Van: It’s wonderful to have you with us today. Thank you very much, Jeff, for being with us. I’m Van Ton-Quinlivan with Futuro Health. Thanks for checking out this episode of WorkforceRx. I hope you will join us again as we continue to explore how to create a future-focused workforce in America.