Despite the commission’s careful distinction between “postsecondary education and training” and a college education, what we have here, from the conservative side of the aisle, is a fresh national commitment to “college for all,” a populist promise to put a bookish chicken in every pot. The belief in “college for all” and its awkward country cousin “postsecondary education and training for all” is here to stay, because it is animated by a uniquely American mix of cultural and political biases that go deeper than political divisions. Public support for “college for all” unifies the aspiring middle class with those who have already arrived but have a fear of falling and a dread of downward mobility for their children.
The American belief in “college for all” arises from deep in our individualistic cultural bias. We welcome an increasing reliance on college as the arbiter of individual career opportunity since, in theory at least, using education to mediate opportunity allows us to expand merit-based success without surrendering individual responsibility. After all, we each have to do our own homework to make the grades and ace the tests that get us into college and in line for the good jobs.
The use of postsecondary education as the gateway to opportunity also complements our other key preferences for an open economy and a limited government. Education, as opposed to job-specific training, is supposed to develop the general metacognitive abilities necessary to keep up with the changing skill requirements of the contemporary workplace, and it thereby provides the economic self-reliance necessary to ward off public dependency and an expanding welfare state.
“College for all” also works as a public narrative, in part because high-school vocational alternatives are widely regarded as second best by the general public, if not by the elites. Even though polls show that most Americans agree that everyone doesn’t need to go to college, most of them support alternatives to college for other people’s children, but they want college for their own. Ultimately, of course, there are no “other people’s children.”
The Shifting Economy
But there’s more to “college for all” than cultural bias, political positioning, and middle-class angst. The motto also resonates with our recent experience in the economy.
The historical increase in the workplace demand for postsecondary education is obvious in any analysis of the official government data. In 1973, only 28 percent of prime-age workers had any postsecondary education. Today, 59 percent have attended some type of postsecondary institution.
Postsecondary requirements are increasing partly because jobs that require postsecondary education are concentrated in the growth industries. Our increasing reliance on postsecondary education as the arbiter of opportunity is a direct result of the rise of the post-industrial service economy. Most new jobs that require postsecondary preparation are in offices, education, health care, and the high-tech sector—the signature occupations and industries in the “knowledge economy.”
The share of white-collar office jobs, for instance, has risen from 30 to 40 percent of all jobs since 1973. In 1973, only 38 percent of office workers had some kind of postsecondary education. Today, 69 percent of them do, while 37 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree, making offices one of the most highly educated workplaces in the country.
The health-care and education sectors also continue to grow, as developing and maintaining human capital becomes more important. Since the 1970s, education and health-care jobs have increased from 10 to almost 20 percent of all jobs. The share of these jobs requiring at least some college has increased from fewer than half in the '70s to more than three-quarters today, with more than 52 percent requiring baccalaureate or graduate degrees.
Meanwhile, the share of technology jobs, the core infrastructure in the post-industrial economy, has doubled from roughly 4 to 8 percent of all jobs. In 1973, 63 percent of technology workers had at least some college; now 86 percent do—and more than one-half have at least a bachelor’s degree.
At the same time, the share and number of factory workers with high school or less is shrinking, as a result of productivity growth. These jobs have declined from more than 30 percent of all jobs to less than 17 percent. But even so, the share of manufacturing workers who are college educated is rising, as manufacturing goes high-tech and as the value added comes not so much from making things as from designing, financing, and selling them. In 1973, only 12 percent of workers in manufacturing had any college. That proportion has now increased to more than 36 percent.
Natural-resource jobs—including farming, fishing, forestry, and mining—are also in decline, even as their share of workers with college training keeps increasing. These jobs accounted for about 5 percent of all jobs in 1959 but have declined by more than two-thirds and now only account for about 1.5 percent of all jobs. In 1973, two-thirds of these workers were high-school dropouts, but now workers with at least some college hold 31 percent of those jobs.
Low-wage services jobs are a mixed bag of career and transitional jobs. Their share of the total has not grown since Ike was president in the 1950s, at 28 million workers or about one-fifth of the available work opportunities. Many of these employees are young, some are in school, some are in transition to something better, and some are older workers moving towards retirement.
Anthony P. Carnevale is director of the Global Institute on Education and the Economy at Georgetown University. Prior to that, he was vice president for public leadership at the Educational Testing Service and served as a senior staff member in both houses of Congress and as a presidential appointee to a variety of committees, boards, and commissions in three U.S. presidents' administrations. Before his government service, he was political and legislative director for the largest union in the AFL-CIO.