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Working Students Spell Major Changes for the Higher Education Ecosystem

The EvoLLLution | Working Students Spell Major Changes for the Higher Education Ecosystem
The nature of the higher education marketplace has shifted, as more students are working while pursuing their education, and colleges and universities need to respond and adapt to that shift quickly.

For years, it was assumed that students who worked while enrolled in higher education were the minority, the “non-traditional” students. However, a report released by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce is clearing the air around who is enrolled in higher education today. According to their new paper, Learning While Earning: The New Normal, approximately 14 million students—over 70 percent of all students enrolled in a postsecondary program—are working while enrolled. In this interview, Anthony Carnevale discusses the Georgetown Center’s recent findings and shares his thoughts on how the higher education system must adapt and evolve to address these changes.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Did the number of students who were working while completing postsecondary programming surprise you?

Anthony Carnevale (AC): We were surprised. What surprised us most was not only that pretty much everybody works—except for the richest 30 percent of students in the most selective programs—and a huge share are working full-time. About 40 percent are working full-time.

It creates a full stress environment because everybody’s maxing out on loans while they’re working. One of the things that’s clear is that working is not enough to pay for a college education.

Evo: What impact does the rising number of adult students have on the high percentage of students who are working?

AC: About 1/3 of the people who are working and learning are over the age of 30, which is a very substantial increase over what we saw in the 1980s and 1990s. It makes a good deal of sense, then, that the percentage of students who are working is higher.

We know that what’s driving all of this is the increasing demand for learning after high school—postsecondary learning, what a lot of people call college though it’s bigger than that—in the economy itself as both an entry-level qualification and a necessity for people who have reached the top of a career ladder and need to either catch up or find a new ladder.

Evo: You found that 8 percent of the total labor force is enrolled in higher education. What does that mean in terms of the importance of the formal professional education marketplace for universities?

AC: In the end, what we have is growing demand for learning both at the entry level and later in the career. The need for higher education at the entry level is almost universal now—about 80 percent of jobs out there require some kind of formal postsecondary education or training. Today’s learners can expect to enter the workforce and look forward to 45 years of learning on-the-job, unless or until they reach their peak in the workforce and need to come back out and get more formal learning to keep climbing.

A lot of this connects to the growth in the value of skill in the economy, and it is a huge market. We’re talking about a $500 billion/year market. A lot of people have noticed that, so colleges are no longer the only providers. There are lots of people getting into this business.

Evo: What are a few critical changes you think higher education institutions should make to better-accommodate the number of mature learning workers?

AC: In the end, there is a simple fact and a simple implication here. That is that the distinction between work and learning is blurring. More and more people who are going to school are working, and more and more of us need learning to get a job, keep a job and keep up in our chosen profession or occupation.

In the final analysis, we are talking about a system where work and learning are cheek-to-jowl—it’s hard to distinguish between the two. That means we have got to connect our education and training system to work.

That’s where the debate begins, as to how you do that.

Evo: Given the number of students working while pursuing their postsecondary degree, do you think the graduate rate measurement—which measures numbers of graduates who complete their credential within 150% of the expected timeframe—should be changed?

AC: The traditional metrics for higher education accountability are very much out of date.

There is actually a movement in public policy and education reform pushing towards focusing on completion rates—graduation rates—and time and cost to completion. But they miss the essential point, which is that completion, graduation and the cost that students pay are all for a specific goal.

More and more, at the cutting edge of this issue—both in legislatures and in the reform community—leaders are trying to figure out what the outcomes are. If there are specific outcomes for the student, shouldn’t those be the measure of the value of the education? Rather than simply measures that are essentially reflexes.

That is to say, if the problem with college is that people don’t graduate and the answer is they need more college, it begs the question, “What is college for?” Those are the things we ought to be measuring.

Evo: Is there anything you would like to add about some of the impressions that you have gained about the higher education space after completing this paper?

AC: It tells me that the bias I hear in the public and from our politicians is pretty much on the nose. Everybody’s got to go to college, and the primary reason people go to college—we know from surveys—is to get a better job. 75 percent of students told us this was their primary goal. Another 15 percent said they wanted to increase their earnings; this tended to be the adults.

In the end, we can’t ignore that for much longer. If that’s the reason people are enrolling, we must pay some attention to it.

They also say the second reason they go to college is to study things that interest them—so that matters—and the third reason they go is to become better people and better citizens.

While employability is the primary standard now, the broader purposes of education—to allow people to live more fully—still matters. There’s an issue going forward about how we’re going to balance those goals.

This interview has been edited for length.

To download Learning While Earning: The New Normal, please click here.

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