Our New National Emergency: Not Enough College Graduates

college graduation

According to the Census Bureau, 33.4 percent of Americans have a college degree (and that includes retirees, of course). Unsplash/MD Duran

As I prepare for another college graduation, one of my favorite times of year, finishing grading final exams and projects, I’ve stumbled across several articles and columns that claims a college education isn’t “worth it.” However, evidence shows that America is so far behind in the number of college graduates that it will soon become a national emergency for our economy.

“After Decades of Pushing Bachelor’s Degrees, U.S. Needs More Tradespeople,” reads a PBS article headline, written by Matt Krupnick with the Hechinger Report.  It cites “the Georgetown Center” (actually, it’s the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University) as saying, “The United States has 30 million jobs that pay an average of $55,000 per year and don’t require a bachelor’s degree.”

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In a recent column, “A Solution to College Debt,” social commentator Cal Thomas writes, “A new study by Georgetown University, Center on Education and the Workforce has found that by next year, ’65 percent of all jobs in the economy will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school.’ That means 35 percent of available jobs will not require a college degree… The implications are obvious. For many jobs and careers it will no longer be necessary to attend a four-year college…”

Ironically, that Georgetown University study was exactly what I was going to cite in a column about pursuing a college degree. Here’s the whole report, titled “Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020,” if you’d like to read it yourself.

In fact, here’s what the whole report says: “By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs—compared to 28 percent in 1973—will require some form of postsecondary education, according to a new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. At the other end of the education spectrum, the percentage of jobs requiring a high school diploma or less will continue to shrink,” Jason Amos explained, writing for the Alliance for Excellent Education.

Growing Number of Jobs Requiring a College Degree

Krupnick and Thomas don’t tell their readers that the number of jobs not requiring a college degree has shrunk from 72 percent to 35 percent. And according to the Lumina Foundation, 80 percent of the jobs lost during the Great Recession required a high school education or less.

So what do these new jobs require? As Jason Amos wrote, “According to the report, the skills most valued in today’s economy are leadership; communications, including speaking and reading comprehension skills; and analysis, which includes critical thinking and coordination. ‘Of all occupations, 96 percent require critical thinking and active listening to be either very important or extremely important to success,’ the report notes.”

And that’s exactly what we do at LaGrange College. Our three C’s are critical thinking, communication and creativity, and we go to great lengths to tie our assignments to these, so students will know why they are writing papers, giving presentations, running statistical tests and conducting qualitative and quantitative analysis.

If Thomas was applying some of these critical thinking skills, he might have considered how many Americans actually have a college degree. The answer was easy to find. According to the Census Bureau, 33.4 percent of Americans have a college degree (and that includes retirees, of course). Employing some math skills from the STEM field, one might determine that we are woefully underprepared to fill the demands of the new American workforce next year.

The Jobs-Degree Gap in America

While critics have been talking down the value of a college degree, pooh-poohing the need to have one, often for the unsupported belief that educating more Americans will somehow “liberalize” the country, other developed countries have been encouraging, even helping, students get their college degrees. That’s why America fell to 13th in the world in terms of its number of college graduates.

This is also why the Trump administration is touting a “merit-based” immigration plan. It’s as much about attracting desperately needed college graduates as it is about limiting the number of immigrants. As Georgia Senator David Perdue’s office wrote in an email to me:

“[I]f we want to continue this economic boom, we must have an immigration system that responds to the needs of our growing economy, while protecting American workers. I will continue working with the Trump administration and my Senate colleagues to move toward a merit-based immigration system that is focused on bringing in the best and brightest from around the world who wish to come to the United States legally to work and make a better life for themselves.”

Well, Americans will be left with three choices: 1) expand legal immigration to admit more foreigners with college degrees, 2) help more students go to college and get their degrees to meet the demands of this new economy with a huge emphasis on higher education skills, or 3) let those new economy jobs go to those countries which have been expanding university education, while we settle for a lower tech economy with more in common with Second World and Third World countries. It’s your choice, America.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia—read his full bio here.

Our New National Emergency: Not Enough College Graduates