The College Advantage: Weathering the Economic Storm

This Resource Review was peer-reviewed by members of the AIR publications volunteer panel, and the ideas, opinions, and perspectives expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily AIR. Members are invited to join the discussion by commenting below.

Anthony P. Carnevale, Tamara Jayasundera, and Ban Cheah, Georgetown Public Policy Institute (2012) 

Reviewed by Michelle Kiec 

The College Advantage: Weathering the Economic Storm seeks to explain changes in workforce demand through the Great Recession and subsequent recovery. Using data from the Current Population Survey (CPS), the report examines employment trends of three categories—highest education level, gender, and industry classification—against selected ideas circulated in the popular press—men lost more jobs than women, the value of a college education is degraded, and an oversupply of underemployed highly educated workers exists. 

Introductory remarks and a brief concluding statement provide broad context for the five sections of the report: The Great Recession: Focus on Men Obscures Job Losses by Less Educated, Trends Began Before the Great Recession, The Great Recession: Industry Differences, The Great Recession: Occupational Differences, and Seeking Shelter in College from the Great Recession. Much of the information is presented in chart and graphical forms, enabling readers to examine the data in either format. Several tabular appendices are organized in two timeframes (December 2007 to January 2010—Great Recession; and January 2010 to February 2012—Recovery) and summarize overall changes in employment levels by industry type. 

The main ideas of gender imbalance and degraded educational values are treated with an open mindset and a dependence on data to explain trends. For instance, while both men and women lost jobs in the Great Recession, low-education jobs were shed in higher numbers than high-education jobs. These losses were primarily in manufacturing and construction (sectors dominated by men) rather than in fields traditionally dominated by women, including education and healthcare. In addition, more women than men complete college, and their work has been concentrated more heavily in fields that require degrees, which is the sector less affected by workforce reductions. Hence, the authors conclude that the Great Recession did not target either gender, but that labor reductions were correlated with industry sectors. 

The authors of The College Advantage also discuss employers’ perceived willingness to pay an “education premium” by hiring workers with college degrees for low- to medium-education jobs previously occupied by high school graduates. Given that an abundance of skilled, low-educated workers are available to fill those positions, the authors conclude that the shift is an active staffing choice. Thus, if this trend continues, an associate’s or bachelor’s degree may be expected for jobs that formerly required only a high school diploma. Further information regarding employment projections and predicted job training requirements is found in Georgetown Public Policy Institute’s Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements through 2018 (Carnevale, Smith, and Strohl, 2010). 

The reader of The College Advantage must be aware of the existence of two separate data sets. In general, the authors used CPS statistics for all workers. However, in the Executive Summary, the authors used statistics for specific population subsets: recent college graduates (ages 21-25) and recent high school graduates (ages 17-20). The unemployment rates for both subgroups are higher than the general population, which leads the reader to ask questions: Are employers preferentially rehiring workers or seeking more experienced staff? Do these unemployment rates represent a drastic shift from historical patterns? Do these groups lack adequate skills and preparation to enter the workforce? While the report conspicuously avoids examining these questions, these topics could form the basis of another report. Furthermore, in an era of reduced educational spending, the answers to these questions are essential to the cultivation and maintenance of a qualified workforce. 

The authors are commended for explaining the employment trends, including gender and industry needs, prior to and through the Great Recession. However, even though educational changes are often precipitated by shifts in the employment sector, the report stops short of making recommendations regarding educational preparation. Institutional researchers should examine the data to determine changes in workforce needs in order to inform campus curriculum committees and academic affairs offices of degree programs that could be expanded, strengthened, redesigned, or discontinued. Furthermore, the many areas of growth listed in the report cover a broad range of fields (such as healthcare services or natural resources). Institutional research professionals must drill down in the data to determine specific growth fields. For instance: Is the economy adding more elementary school teachers, private tutors, or daycare providers? Should students interested in natural resources study the natural sciences, business, or management? Answers to these questions exist outside the scope of this report. 

The College Advantage: Weathering the Economic Storm provides a concise and readable assessment of recent workforce and educational changes. Focused on the correlation between educational level and job stability, the report provides data-driven analysis to counteract the dire warnings that a college degree is overrated. Although many questions remain unanswered, policymakers and campus readers can gain an entry-level understanding of workforce trends as they relate to higher education. Institutional researchers may wish to compare fields of growth and decline with academic programs offered on their campuses and alumni employment trends in order to predict employability of graduates in current programs. Parents and prospective college students would benefit from understanding how educational pursuits are tied to future economic benefits. While many questions remain unanswered, this report provides a concise examination of job gains and losses through a broad spectrum of fields. Further work on this topic, through the Georgetown Public Policy Institute or by outside researchers, will undoubtedly build on this study. 

Michelle Kiec is Associate Dean in the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Kutztown University.




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Total Comments: 3
Tony posted on 5/7/2013 4:58 PM
Great review. We might add this book to our shelf for our professional development reading.
Bruce posted on 5/8/2013 7:58 PM
Thorough review; lots of unanswered questions about both the economy and education and it's good to see an attempt at working through this from the data.
Eric posted on 5/10/2013 12:25 PM
Thank you for reviewing this, Michelle! I read through the Executive Summary and then downloaded the full report. Even though we still face economic challenges, it is so important for people to achieve higher levels of education.