The 2010 Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce study of “Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018” concluded that “by 2018 we will need 22 million new college degrees- but will fall short of that number by at least 3 million postsecondary degrees, Associate or better.” Furthermore, the report states “we will need at least 4.7 million new workers with postsecondary certificates. “ The report comes to two other conclusions, all conclusions that will not surprise the higher education community. First, the report notes that “between 1973 and 2008, the share of jobs in the U.S. economy which required postsecondary education increased from 28 percent to 59 percent. And second that “as the economy evolved, postsecondary education gradually became the threshold requirement for access to middle class status and earnings.”
But there is a fundamental disconnect between the increasing need for higher education credentials and the support by government of students pursuing this education. Be it on the graduate level or on the undergraduate level, financial support for students as well as for institutions is declining. Consequently in a lackluster economy, with many families straining to afford the education for their children, the diminished support makes it more difficult to pursue added education and less likely that this investment will be made.
Education is first and foremost an investment, an investment in the personal growth of the individual undertaking the education as well as an investment in the economy. Our economy needs workers with sophisticated skills sets to do the increasingly more complex jobs that are available in fields such as the sciences, healthcare, business and education. In a global economy and in a highly technological time, there are no substitutes for such workers. As one example, if we look at health care where we are striving, rightly so, to provide a health care safety net for all our citizens, how will we be able to vastly increase the services needed by this broader base of our population without expanding the supply of educated workers? Laws can provide accessibility but without the necessary supply, the results will not be there.
Especially in those areas that are vital to our economic growth and to the well being of our population, there needs to be a well thought out policy that provides more, not less, resources for higher education. We should highlight the areas with the greatest need for skilled workers, and I think we already know this information for at least the next decade. Next, we should publicize where those areas are and what the required educational attainment is for a person to succeed in those fields. This information needs to be conveyed to students in middle and high schools and also to their families so that it can be fully considered as part of the decision making process in regard to postsecondary education. And then to further make sure the supply of skilled workers is commensurate with our needs, we need to develop specific economic incentives. These incentives should be targeted just to increase workers in areas of need; in a time of scarce resources we need to carefully and precisely allocate those resources. Yes, this will cost money; yes, we will need to increase our support of postsecondary education; and yes, this will impact the decision making process of these students/future workers. But we have no choice. To allow a fundamental disequilibrium to exist between needed skills and the number of workers with those skills is to relegate our economy to clearly falling short of its potential. And the more we fall short of our potential, the more we face an economy unable to do all we all need done.