The LEAP Challenge Blog

Responding to Critics in a Tough Economy

The chorus of critics is growing in size and volume. "College is too expensive." "Students graduate with crushing debt and can't get jobs anyway." "We don't really need more college graduates—especially those with liberal arts degrees." "Liberal education is a luxury we can't afford." "What the economy really needs is more technical training."

We've all heard commentators and read stories making these assertions. The criticism is bipartisan, from President Obama suggesting that art history degrees are less valuable than training certificates to Senator Marco Rubio blaming higher education (and too much public funding for it) for producing an overeducated and underemployed citizenry and using Bureau of Labor Statistics to bolster his arguments.

How can we respond—effectively and with integrity?

We must first "just do it." Many of us know how valuable a college degree is even—or especially—in a tough and volatile economy, but too few of us are speaking out. Too few of us are writing op-eds, giving speeches, sending letters to the editors. We must speak out—and we need to do so with integrity and accurate data. We mustn't overpromise. Students should know that student loan debt is real debt and they should be careful about how much they borrow, especially if they are aspiring to careers that, while valuable and fulfilling, may not pay as well relative to others.

We also, however, should correct misinterpretations and misrepresentations of data whenever we can. There are two good sources to help with responding to two of the most dangerous messages out in the field.

Anthony Carnevale and his colleagues at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce have produced some of the best research on the connections between education and employment outcomes. They also have just published a very useful blog for PBS NewsHour on why the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) quoted by Rubio and many others is highly misleading.

If one believes the BLS—and commentators using its data—only 27 percent of jobs actually require any kind of college degree, including associate's degrees. BLS data suggest that there are 21 million overqualified degreed workers in a workforce of 140 million, and these numbers "have contributed to growing skepticism about the value of higher education by many vocal and influential public figures," Carnevale and his colleagues say. This is, in fact, wildly misleading data, and Carnevale and colleagues debunk these conclusions definitively. In fact, their research suggests that 35 percent of jobs in the near future will require a bachelor's degree or higher.

Carnevale and colleagues point out many ways the BLS data is flawed. In fact, as they note, "the data is not based on data at all. The BLS does not claim to analyze educational demand as measured by hiring or wage differences. Instead, they 'assign' minimal education and training requirements for employment. Their educational assignment method is based on the subjective judgment of BLS analysts in consultation with an unstated number of external consultants to cover change in 755 occupations."

What results from this approach? An example about nurses is revealing. BLS data suggest that "a two-year degree is what's required to become a registered nurse even though we know that 50 percent of nurses already have a four-year or graduate degree and that those nurses have more responsibilities and higher earnings than nurses with associate degrees once they get on the job." Therefore, a full-time employed, BA-holding nurse is "counted" by the BLS as part of the high percentage of "unemployed or underemployed." When one sees that phrase—"unemployed or underemployed"—deployed by commentators, cautionary bells should start clanging!

Carnevale and colleagues rightly note that the BLS data is completely out-of-synch with mainstream labor economics research. In that research, "economic demand is measured by employment levels and earnings….The evidence on earnings and college degrees is unequivocal: Employers continue to demand better-educated employees and are willing to pay more to get them." This is why the college wage premium continues to rise.

But what about critics who suggest that while some degrees are valuable, liberal arts degrees are a waste of money?

AAC&U has argued for years that a liberal education provides many benefits that extend far beyond higher salaries. In today's environment, however, saying that college is about more than jobs isn't enough. We must respond to critics directly and with evidence about earnings and employment. And the truth is that, even in narrow economic terms, liberal arts degrees remain highly valuable. This is the conclusion my colleague Patrick Kelly and I reached when we delved deeply into a highly reputable database from the US Census Bureau.

Titled How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment, this new report uses US Census data captured in 2010–11 to examine long-term salary patterns, from just out of college to peak career earnings, for graduates in several categories of majors: the liberal arts (humanities, arts, and social sciences), the sciences and mathematics, professional and preprofessional fields, and engineering. The findings show clearly that, over time, liberal arts graduates close earnings gaps with those who major in professional or preprofessional fields. In fact, at peak earning age, liberal arts graduates make, on average, slightly more than those who majored in professional or preprofessional fields.

It is important, however, not to distort the data we examined. Our analysis affirms what others have suggested about science, mathematics, and engineering. Because of supply and demand and the changing global economy, the earnings of science and mathematics majors are generally higher across the career span, and engineering salaries are highest of all.

However, many Americans are under the mistaken impression that to secure a postgraduate position, students need to select a major whose title (e.g., accounting) directly correlates with a job. This new study shows that graduates in all fields—including liberal arts fields like English, political science, or economics—do far better than non-graduates in terms of finding jobs and enjoying salary progression. The study also shows that liberal arts majors—who account for about 26 percent of the overall college graduate pool—have an exceptionally broad array of career destinations, ranging from education to law to business leadership roles of many kinds.

In this new report, we also revisit a very important finding from AAC&U's most recent national survey of employers. Today's economy is very volatile and rewards innovation. In fact, 93 percent of employers surveyed agreed that a job "candidates' demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major."

We should use this data—and new data being generated by such reputable initiatives as the new Gallup-Purdue index—to correct misperceptions and create our own chorus singing in tune about the value of higher education. We must also, however, be honest with students about the tough economy—and about debt. We should encourage students to pursue careers in public service, for instance, but they need to have good information about what they are likely to earn in those careers so they can borrow appropriately. Students deserve to hear the truth from both policy makers and educators.