ALEC funding Education Foundations, and the college degree “attainment” myth

The last installment of Badger Democracy’s look into public higher education reform and the changing role of ALEC-funding private foundations – an examination of the fundamental rationale for the agenda being pursued by Lumina Foundation and others. The basic premise Lumina presents to politicians and academia alike goes like this – creating a higher level of degree attainment in the population will lead to greater employment. From their “Impact of Attainment” publication:

We don’t know precisely what percentage of jobs require higher education today, much less what that percentage will be in the future. Lumina is supporting research that is closing in on an answer, however, and we already know the number is considerably higher than the current supply of college graduates. Preliminary research shows that the rate of higher education attainment that the U.S. must reach is at least 60 percent.

The objective of the Foundation’s public policy work is to support policy changes that ensure a greater volume of high-quality degree completion nationwide. Lumina will advocate for the actions it believes are necessary for the nation to reach 60 percent degree attainment.

We need more people with degrees to reach greater employment levels. From the above excerpt – “…the number {of jobs requiring higher education} is considerably higher than the current supply of college graduates.” Therefore, we need MORE degreed citizens to push higher employment in the US. That is the basic premise of Lumina’s pursuit of public policy influence with groups like ALEC.  If that premise holds true, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) should confirm that as the job market requires higher attainment levels, more degree holders should be employed – nearing full employment based on the above statement. The data which Lumina cites also states that “attainment rates have been flat.”

To begin, let it be accepted as fact that a) degree-holders have a higher income level than non-degree holders; and b) degree holders have a better chance of finding a job. What is being questioned is whether more people with college degrees will result in more jobs; in other words, does higher degree attainment result in “job creation”, as Lumina claims.

(All data and spreadsheets are from BLS data retrieved 6/21/12, and applies to the 25 years and older demographic) Lumina bases much of its premise on Unemployment Rates. At first glance, based on that information alone, it would seem to be an accurate equivalency – that more degrees=more jobs. The High School Grad unemployment rate in May 2008 was 5.0%. The current rate (May 2012) is 8.1% – a 3.1% increase.

The Some College unemployment rate in May 2008 was 4.3%. Current rate (May 2012) is 7.9% – an increase of 3.6%. As a stark contrast to the non-degreed population, the College grad unemployment rate in May 2008 was 2.2%. In May 2012, the rate rose to 3.9%. Based on unemployment rate alone – college grads have fared far better in this recession (depression according to Paul Krugman) than those without degrees. Other data show the actual situation is far more complex than that – and may dispute Lumina’s premise.

The HS Grad unemployed level (number of unemployed workers) in May 2008 was 1.92 million. That number has risen to nearly 3 million in May 2012, an increase of nearly 60%. The Some college unemployed level in May 2008 was 1.57 million. In May 2012, that number has risen to 2.92 million – an increase of 1.35 million people, or 86% increase. The College Grad unemployed level in May 2008 was 981,000. In May 2012, that number has risen to 1.88 million – an increase of over 100%. While, as previously stated, college grads have a better chance of finding employment, and less are unemployed overall – this data clearly shows that during the current recession, college grads are becoming unemployed at a higher rate over four years. The question is, are more college grads in the workforce?

The High School Grad civilian labor force in May 2008 was 38.13 million people. In May 2012 the civilian labor force decreased to 36.92 million – a drop of 1.4 million.

The Some College Civilian Labor Force in May 2008 was 36.76 million people. In May 2012, the number rose to 37.08 million – an increase of 300,000 people in the workforce.

The College Graduate Labor Force in May 2008 was 44.63 million people. In May 2012, the number has risen to 48.23 million – an increase of 3.6 million people. This is important – the number of college graduates in the workforce has INCREASED at a higher rate that the “high school graduate” or “some college” categories. If Lumina’s premise holds true, shouldn’t that translate into more jobs and greater prosperity – not a recession that continues as more workers with degrees enter the workforce? The numbers of employed workers in each category is the most intriguing number.

The High School Grad Employed level (numbers employed) in 2008 was 36.2 million people. In May 2012 that number had decreased to 33.93 million – a drop of 2.3 million employed. Remember – as cited above, there were 1.4 million less HS grads in the workforce. A difference of 900,000 HS grads who didn’t find work in those 4 years.

The Some College employment level in May 2008 was 35.2 million people. In May, 2012 the number had decreased to 34.16 million – a drop of 1.1 million employed. As 300,000 more entered the workforce with some college experience, the jobs were not there to meet the need.

The College graduate employment level in May 2008 was 43.65 million people. In May 2012, that number has risen to 46.36 million people. An increase of 2.7 million. If one merely looks at the unemployment rate and the numbers of employed, the picture for college grads and Lumina’s premise appear very sound. When presented in the context with the other data, the picture is not as clear – or bright. Recall that 3.6 million additional people entered the workforce in the same time frame with college degrees – yet employment has only increased by 2.7 million. That leaves nearly 1 million new college grads in the workforce, without employment – the same number without employment as high school graduates, cited above.

Lumina and other private foundations are using data which favors their agenda to “sell” their plan to public institutions and government officials; and will result in public higher education following the ALEC blueprint of less public funding, more reliance on private foundations (like Lumina) that set the research and policy agenda. The higher attainment of college degrees will not be an economic panacea – especially if the degree is achieved merely for the sake of a degree; at the expense of higher learning and critical thinking. It will merely mean more people with degrees looking for work in a depressed economy – with higher student loan debt.

As Sara Godrick-Rab at UW-Madison has pointed out – public accountability and oversight are necessary for these programs. As this series of blogs has demonstrated, private foundations such as Lumina are dominating the dialog and policy formation in our great public universities; and not for academic purposes. Theirs is an agenda of production and economics – which, if fully implemented, will have a terrible impact on the future of public education. And democracy.

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1 Comment

  1. august b. priemer

     /  September 24, 2012

    The college-degreed unemployment rate is understated by a huge margin because we are failing to use the correct base, which should be “employed in a job requiring a college degree.” Millions of the degreed are reportedly in jobs open to anyone with a high school diploma or less because they couldn’t find a job that they went to college for. As such they are “unemployed” from jobs they went into debt to qualify for.


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