Trends in Higher Education

November 4, 2013

Via: The College Board

Two new studies prepared by the College Board explore the benefits of higher education. These studies not only examine the payoffs to individuals and society, but address the challenges in obtaining higher education, as well as the disparity of achievement and outcomes across different demographics.

Education Pays 2013: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society documents the ways in which both individuals and society as a whole benefit from increased levels of education. The report examines differences in the earnings and employment patterns of U.S. adults with different levels of education. It compares health-related behaviors, reliance on public assistance programs, civic participation, and indicators of the well-being of the next generation. Financial benefits are easier to document than nonpecuniary benefits, but the latter may be as important to students themselves, as well as to the society in which they participate. In addition to the financial and nonpecuniary benefits of higher education, Education Pays 2013 examines the increases and the persistent disparities across demographic groups in college participation and completion. Read more . . .

How College Shapes Lives: Understanding the Issues builds on the information presented in Education Pays 2013: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society by discussing some of the ways in which the payoff of postsecondary education can be measured and providing insights into why there is confusion about that payoff, despite strong evidence. The report focuses on the variation in outcomes across individuals, helping to clarify that the existence of a high average payoff and the reality of significant benefits for most students are not inconsistent with disappointing outcomes for some. The aim of this report is to provide background and context for readers to help them become more active and constructive participants in discussions of the role of higher education in the United States. Read more . . .

Stubborn Skills Gap in America’s Work Force

October 10, 2013

By: Eduardo Porter
Via: The New York Times

One of the few things that nearly everyone in Washington agrees on is that American workers are the best.

More productive than any on earth,” President Obama has said of them. They “build better products than anybody else.

Republicans, somewhat less exuberant, are nonetheless sure that American workers “can surpass the competition” on any level playing field. Even the United States Chamber of Commerce — not always a worker’s best friend — asserts that, along with the nation’s entrepreneurs and companies, America’s workers “are the best in the world.”

Fact is, they are not.

To believe an exhaustive new report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the skill level of the American labor force is not merely slipping in comparison to that of its peers around the world, it has fallen dangerously behind.

The report is based on assessments of literacy, math skills and problem-solving using information technology that were performed on about 160,000 people age 16 to 65 in 22 advanced nations of the O.E.C.D., plus Russia and Cyprus. Five thousand Americans were assessed. The results are disheartening.

Though we possess average literacy skills, we are far below the top performers. Twenty-two percent of Japanese adults scored in the top two of six rungs on the literacy test. Fewer than 12 percent of Americans did. We are also about average in terms of problem-solving with computers. Paradoxically, our biggest deficits are in math, the most highly valued skill in the work force. Only Italians and Spaniards performed worse.

Some 34 percent of adult Americans scored in the top three rungs of the assessment for numeracy, 12.5 percentage points less than the average across all countries. Twenty-nine percent of Americans scored in the lowest two rungs — 10 percentage points more than the average. By percentage, more than twice as many Finns as Americans scored in the top two.

The O.E.C.D. study lands in the midst of a contentious debate over whether the United States faces a skills shortage. Over the last couple of years, employers have been saying that they can’t find enough skilled workers. Economists and other commentators have pointed out that employers would probably find them if they offered higher wages.

The report suggests that the sluggish employment growth since the nation emerged from recession probably has little to do with a skills deficit that has been a generation in the making. But it pretty forcefully supports the case that this deficit is an albatross around the economy’s neck.

“The recession did not fundamentally change the structure of the economy in terms of the supply and demand for skills or education,” argues Jonathan Rothwell of the Brookings Institution, who produced a study last year about the education gap afflicting the job markets of America’s largest cities. “Before the recession, inadequate education was a major problem. It continues to be.”

Mr. Rothwell says that the problem is getting bigger: while just under a third of the existing jobs in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas require a bachelor’s degree or more, about 43 percent of newly available jobs demand this degree. And only 32 percent of adults over the age of 25 have one.

The O.E.C.D. puts this deficit into an international context. It finds that advanced economies are generating very few jobs for workers with middling skills. Yet while other countries seem to have gotten the message, racing ahead to build skills, the American skills set is standing still.

For instance, the youngest Koreans, age 16 to 24, scored 49 points more, on average, on literacy tests than the oldest cohort of 55- to 65-year-olds. Young Americans, by contrast, scored only nine points more than their elders.

While younger cohorts in other countries are consistently better educated than older ones, in the United States that is not always the case: 30-year-olds in 2012 scored lower, on average, in literacy tests than 30-year-olds in 1994.

“Unless there is a significant change of direction,” the report notes, “the work force skills of other O.E.C.D. countries will overtake those of the U.S. just at the moment when all O.E.C.D. countries will be facing (and indeed are already facing) major and fast-increasing competitive challenges from emerging economies.”

This will be unsurprising to anybody who has been paying attention to the performance of American students in international tests run by the O.E.C.D. The mediocre skills exhibited by Americans in their early 20s today map precisely onto the mediocre scores recorded by American teenagers in 2000.

And yet, the report raises a couple of vexing questions. The highly skilled in the United States earn a much larger wage premium over unskilled workers than in most, if not all, other advanced nations, where regulations, unions and taxes tend to temper inequality. So if the rewards for skills are so high, why is the supply of skilled workers so sluggish?

“The human capital base in the United States is quite thin,” said Andreas Schleicher, the O.E.C.D, deputy director for education and skills. “The American economy rewards skill very well, but the supply hasn’t responded.”

The United States was the first country to provide for universal high school education. Today, one high school student in five leaves without a diploma, a weaker outcome than in most O.E.C.D. countries. The math and reading scores of American teenagers in O.E.C.D. tests have not improved over the last 10 years. And our college graduation rates have slipped substantially below those of other rich nations.

Schools do not appear to be adding much value. Nor do employers, which do little to train workers. Immigration by less educated workers from Latin America plays some role. But as the O.E.C.D. notes, two-thirds of low-skilled Americans were born in the United States. And the United States has a poor track record in improving immigrants’ skills.

Socioeconomic status is a barrier. Not only is inequality particularly steep, little is done to redress the opportunity deficit of poorer students. Public investment in the early education of disadvantaged children is meager. Teachers are not paid very well, compared with other countries. And the best teachers tend to end up teaching in affluent schools.

Indeed, the United States is one of only three O.E.C.D. countries in which socioeconomically disadvantaged schools have lower student-teacher ratios. But the skills deficit is not only a problem of poverty and marginalization. American college graduates, notes Mr. Schleicher, perform worse than their peers elsewhere: “looking at certificates, the United States looks much better than looking at skills.”

The other question is equally perplexing: if the supply of skilled workers is so poor, how can the United States remain such an innovative, comparatively agile economy? In other words, even if the American skill set is poor compared with that of its peers, who cares?

Mr. Schleicher answered that question like this: today, the American labor market is good at attracting talented foreigners, offering them more money than they could make elsewhere.

Still, it might be risky to stake the nation’s future on maintaining a steady stream of skill from abroad. What would happen if other countries started rewarding their talented workers? What would happen if America’s influx of talent stalled?

Consider Japan, which has some of the most skilled workers in the O.E.C.D but uses them poorly. Regulations make it difficult for firms to hire and fire. Social mores keep companies from rewarding talent with higher pay. Many women are marginalized in the work force.

“Japan has fantastic human capital but uses it quite poorly,” Mr. Schleicher told me. “The United States is the opposite. It has mediocre assets but is good at extracting value from them.”

The question is, which country has the most difficult challenge? Mr. Schleicher says it’s no contest. In Japan, all you have to do is liberalize labor market regulations and allow firms to exploit human capital to its fullest. Here, human capital has to be painstakingly built, one cohort at a time. That work cannot begin soon enough.

‘The Great Shift’: Americans Not Working

August 28, 2013

By: David Leonhardt
Via: The New York Times

Looking at these two charts together is a quick way to become demoralized about the American economy:

Yes, the unemployment rate has fallen. But almost the entire reason it has fallen is the drop in the number of people in the labor force — either working or actively looking. As Binyamin Appelbaum has noted, the share of adult Americans with jobs is essentially unchanged over the last three years.

In a brief new report from Express Employment Professionals, a staffing firm, the company’s chief executive, Bob Funk, refers to the problem as “the great shift.” This shift long predates the recent financial crisis, too. The labor force participation rate peaked more than a decade ago.

If the decline stemmed largely from an aging work force, it would be much less worrisome. But the initial wave of baby-boomer retirements plays only a small role in the drop; the labor force participation rate has fallen almost as sharply for people aged 25 to 54 as it has for the overall adult population.

As the report notes, economists are not entirely sure what has caused the shift. One factor seems to be the so-called skills gap — the slow growth in educational attainment in recent decades, even as the economy has become more technologically advanced.

A second factor is most likely the weak economic growth of the past 13 years: the 2000-1 dot-com bust, the mediocre expansion that followed, the financial crisis that began in 2007 and the disappointing recovery of the last few years.

Another cause may be the rise in the number of workers on disability. The report cites a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco to argue that disability is helping cause the decline in work. That’s probably right, although it is worth remembering that the growth of the ranks of the disabled may be more of an effect of the jobs slump than a cause.

Either way, the decline in labor force participation almost certainly receives too little attention. Each month, small changes in the unemployment rate receive great scrutiny. We often overlook just how flawed a measure of the job market that rate has become over the last 13 years.

Source (all charts): Bureau of Labor Statistics

Colleges Help Ithaca Thrive in a Region of Struggles

August 8, 2013

By: Jesse McKinley
Via: The New York Times

ITHACA, N.Y. — In many ways, this city is not so special. It has a nice lake, some attractive houses with lawns, and a couple of colleges. But many places in upstate New York have lakes and lawns and places of high learning.

What most sets this city of 30,000 apart from many of its neighbors these days is what is absent: fear for its future.

Led by a young mayor with an inspiring back story and an idealist’s approach — he talks about sidewalks in philosophical terms — Ithaca is the upstate exception: a successful liberal enclave in a largely conservative region troubled by unemployment woes, declining or stagnant population, and post-Detroit talk of bankruptcy.

“It’s like a little San Francisco,” Nicole Roulstin, 32, an Ithaca resident, said recently, “or the Berkeley of the East.”

Much of that optimism comes from a reciprocal relationship with two institutions — Cornell University and, to a lesser degree, Ithaca College — which have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy and created thousands of jobs for everyone from professors to landscapers, and also fostered new companies. Ithaca and its home county, Tompkins, regularly post the lowest unemployment rate in the state. In June, Ithaca’s was 5.7 percent, tied with another college city, Saratoga Springs, where a racetrack drives an annual summer boom.

Ithaca’s model of education as an economic engine is one that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has made a priority this year as a strategy for all of upstate, where there are dozens of universities. In June, he signed a bill that would allow State University of New York branches and some private schools to offer tax-free zones for new businesses that open on or adjacent to campuses.

Ithaca’s mayor, Svante L. Myrick, who was invited to speak alongside the governor when he promoted the plan in May, playfully challenged other leaders of Ivy League cities in the Northeast to come to his. “And I’ll show you how we built in Ithaca the lowest unemployment rate in the state,” he said, adding that the city had been successful “because our universities have partnered with our private industries,” and did not just rely on businesses selling “sandwiches and beds” to visitors and students.

Ithaca has used the deep intellectual bench of its neighboring colleges and community entrepreneurs to help create everything from skateboard companies to high-tech start-ups, an approach to job creation that has attracted the admiration of nearby municipalities.

“They’ve been able to cross over the barrier from nonprofit and transition into a for-profit entrepreneurial model, which is not an easy task,” said Stephanie A. Miner, the mayor of Syracuse, about 45 miles to the north. “We’ve done it as well, but we don’t have the kind of penetration that Ithaca has.”

Institutional support for new business, Ms. Miner added, also attracts investors unconnected to the schools. “When you look at the venture capitalists that are in upstate New York or that are investing in upstate New York, always first, in the areas that that money is going to, is Ithaca,” she said.

Blessed with physical beauty, vineyards and cultural attractions, the city and the county have also benefited from ample tourism, something the governor has promoted as central to any upstate renaissance. Ithaca’s population basically doubles during the school year, and the city has many residents whose own college days are not far behind them; the median age in the city’s core and immediate suburbs is 26 — the same age as Mr. Myrick.

Jean McPheeters, president of the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, said Mr. Myrick had impressed her by meeting with city and county leaders the first week that he took office in January 2012, and by pushing for efforts to change zoning to allow for greater building heights. “Svante has been a great friend to the business community,” she said.

A self-described “pragmatic progressive,” Mr. Myrick has been active in reorganizing the police force, restructuring city government and attracting $200 million in new development to the city, including a multimillion-dollar overhaul of its central commons.

At the same time, he fervently preaches the benefits of car sharing, locally grown food and affordable housing. He shares a house with four roommates near Cornell and takes the bus to City Hall downtown, where tattoo parlors, coffee shops and used-record stores are neighbors to upscale restaurants and shops.

“This is the classic place where you have baristas with Ph.D.’s,” said Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, a nonprofit development group. “You have people with incredible skill sets who choose to remain here.”

Sure enough, Thomas R. Rochon, president of Ithaca College, said his school often employs graduates from its bigger, friendly rival. “Some fraction of our faculty are from Cornell,” he said. His college, which has an enrollment of about 6,750, has also poured big money into local construction, including a new $65 million athletics center that opened in 2011.

About half the city’s residents over age 25 have at least a bachelor’s degree, said Robert M. Simpson, the president of the CenterState Corporation for Economic Opportunity, a 12-county economic development organization. He added that Cornell and the city as a whole had been “increasingly successful in translating that into patents, license income and start-ups,” which in turn create jobs for local residents.

Mary G. Opperman, vice president for human resources and safety services at Cornell, said the university has two centers devoted to fostering businesses: the Center for Technology Enterprise and Commercialization, which manages licenses for a range of tech and other inventions, and the Kevin M. McGovern Family Center for Venture Development in the Life Sciences. But the school also plans to work more directly with the city itself and to open a business incubator downtown this year.

“Our success is very much tied to the success of Ithaca,” Ms. Opperman said.

Soft-spoken and slyly funny, Mr. Myrick is a striking success story. Living in the tiny town of Earlville, N.Y., he overcame a childhood that included stints living in shelters and sometimes sleeping in a family car. His father struggled with drug abuse, and his mother raised him and his three siblings on minimum-wage jobs, with help from his grandparents.

Mr. Myrick, whose mother is white and whose father is African-American, said he vividly remembers reading about Barack Obama as a teenager.

“I thought, ‘Holy moly,’” Mr. Myrick said. “Here’s this guy, he’s mixed race, he’s got a funny name, he’s just like me. And it made me think I could go to a good school. I could do something.”

Still, he said he was thrilled when Cornell accepted him — “I was a middling student,” he recalled, “with very good standardized scores” — and began to get involved in the community shortly after coming to Ithaca in 2005, eventually getting elected to the City Council in 2007 at age 20. In 2011, he was persuaded to run for mayor. His friend and fellow Cornell alumnus, Nathan I. Shinagawa, was chairman of his campaign. (He is one of Mr. Myrick’s roommates.)

Housing, in fact, is an issue that Mr. Myrick said Ithaca still needs to address. He also worries about crime — “When you’re the mayor, any crime is too much crime” — and budget issues. “There’s still not enough money,” he said.

Then, too, is the issue of the city’s sidewalks, which have long been paid for by owners with adjacent property. Mr. Myrick has instead proposed a system to maintain sidewalks that would be paid for by all property owners, something he said that speaks to the larger issue of social responsibility. “And once we figure out what the responsibility is,” he said, “how can we fairly mete out justice?”

Such high-mindedness — and Ithaca’s seemingly steady prosperity through hard times — has attracted attention to Mr. Myrick’s own political future, something he deflects, saying that keeping Ithaca running is his only job.

“I still to this day don’t know what I’m going to do when I grow up,” he said.

Down in the Delta, Outsiders Who Arrived to Teach Now Find a Home

July 30, 2013

By: Bret Schulte
Via: The New York Times

HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. — If you are from around here, you know Doug Friedlander is not.

Born in New York City and reared on Long Island, Mr. Friedlander is Jewish and vegetarian and has a physics degree from Duke.

But here he is, at 37, living in a roomy white house in this hard-luck Delta town of 12,000. Mr. Friedlander and his wife, Anna Skorupa, are part of a gradual flow of young, university-trained outsiders into the Delta’s shrinking communities, many of whom arrived through Teach for America and stayed beyond their two-year commitment.

Mr. Friedlander is now the ambitious director of the county’s Chamber of Commerce. He frets over the kudzu that is devouring abandoned buildings. He attends Rotary Club meetings, where he sidesteps the lunch offerings for carnivores. He organizes workshops to modernize small businesses and pushes tourism and the development of a decimated downtown along the banks of the Mississippi.

The mechanization of agriculture, lost manufacturing and a legacy of poverty and racism have taken their toll on the Delta, but Mr. Friedlander is thrilled to be here. He left his job at a software company in North Carolina’s Research Triangle nine years ago, taking a two-thirds pay cut, to “make a bigger difference.”

To that end, “this is the most fertile soil on earth,” Mr. Friedlander said. “If I were in New York, I would be a leaf at the end of a branch at the end of a tree — in a forest.”

Mr. Friedlander arrived in 2004 to teach science at Central High School in Helena. He was one of 71 corps members in the Delta; currently, about 300 of them fan across the region’s classrooms each year, mostly in Arkansas and Mississippi.

Here, in towns like Helena, a former agricultural hub and river port, they find some of the most devastating poverty in the country: shacks on cinder blocks, schools with nearly all students on subsidized lunch programs.

Segregation is a fact of life. Private “white-flight academies,” as some locals call them, are common, leaving public schools to serve an overwhelmingly poor, black student body.

“I just knew when they left my classroom, it was an uphill battle for so many of my kids,” said Greg Claus, who is from Ohio and taught art at a public junior high school from 2008 to 2011. Now an assistant to the mayor of Greenville, Miss., he has seen the names of some former students on the police blotter. Several more are already parents.

Teach for America is fiercely competitive, drawing top graduates accustomed to success. “For most, this is the hardest challenge they’ve ever met,” said Luke Van De Walle, a 33-year-old corps alumnus from Indiana who has settled in Helena with his wife, Jamie, and their two young children. “They put a lot of effort in, and they get chewed up by 25 third graders.”

Still, some former members say they have never felt so satisfied.

Michelle Johansen, 37, arrived from the University of Michigan in 1997. Since then, she has become a volunteer manager at the farmers’ market in Cleveland, Miss. She works part time at Habitat for Humanity and is an adjunct instructor at Delta State University.

“I don’t want to leave,” said Ms. Johansen, who is married and has two children. “The work I’ve been able to do in the Delta is fulfilling.”

She does wish there were a Target in town. And a movie theater. There is no place to get brunch. But, she said, “there’s something about the Delta that’s very special, and if people are open to it, they will be captivated by it.”

Matty Bengloff, 28, is one of those people. He grew up in an apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Now he owns a three-bedroom home in Cleveland, as well as a hip new yogurt shop called Delta Dairy, with his fiancée, Suzette Matthews.

“The barriers here are low,” Mr. Bengloff said. “You can be really entrepreneurial. Everyone is eager to help.”

But the transition is not always easy.

Residents cured Mr. Bengloff of his Yankee ways. Soon after arriving in the South with Teach for America, Mr. Bengloff was in a school speaking to a receptionist. When he could not hear the man’s words, Mr. Bengloff asked, “What?” The receptionist said: “I can tell you’re not from around here. When you don’t understand something, you say, ‘Excuse me, sir?’ Or, ‘Sir?’ ”

Mr. Bengloff took the lesson to heart. Now his habitual use of “ma’am” irritates his mother back East. He drawls, “Thanks, y’all,” to customers passing through his shop.

Ms. Johansen and Mr. Bengloff said they were attracted to the quirks and complexity of the Delta.

They have found schools that are progressive and a complicated political scene. Ms. Johansen’s doctor is a catfish noodler (who fishes bare-handed). Shopping online is more necessity than convenience, though a two-hour jaunt to Memphis is common. The unofficial town motto, plastered on bumper stickers, is an ironic “Keep Cleveland Boring.”

No one, residents say, is too busy for a good chat.

“I know people who live in places with lots of things,” Ms. Johansen said. “Movie theaters. A Target. And they aren’t happy. I’m a happy camper.”

Mr. Bengloff, who is Jewish, found what locals call a “church family,” led by a retired rabbi who commutes from Memphis once a month. Just as many of the temple regulars are Christian as are Jewish, just because they like the diversity of experience and, said Mr. Bengloff, “the rabbi is great.”

Some longtime residents initially resented the inflow of Teach for America members with fancy degrees and backgrounds. Those troubles have largely eased over time. And the hard truth is, the Delta needs the people.

“It’s good having highly educated folks coming back,” said Chuck Roscopf, a lawyer in Helena. “My kids, my friends’ kids — they’re all gone. They’re in Dallas or just about anywhere else, but they won’t come back.”

Teach for America entered the Delta in 1992, when it dispatched a few dozen corps members to Helena and Marianna, Ark. The numbers and geographic reach expanded steadily but exploded in 2009 because of an influx of funds from the State of Mississippi and the Walton Family Foundation.

The organization now estimates that over those years, 250 corps members have stayed on after their two-year commitments were over. Some have remained in education; others found jobs in private industry and community organizations.

They have started education-based nonprofit groups, like Mississippi First and the Sunflower County Freedom Project. Mr. Friedlander and Ms. Skorupa, with other Teach for America alumni, were founding board members of a new Boys and Girls Club in Helena.

Mr. Friedlander remains a hard-charging New Yorker, which has rubbed some folks the wrong way.

“If he was just here to make money, they probably would have run him out of town,” said Jason Rolett, the executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Phillips County. But Mr. Friedlander has won the trust of much of the community, Mr. Rolett said, “because of his heart, how much he cares.”

Mr. Friedlander enjoys ripping through a PowerPoint presentation of Helena’s new health center, riverboat tours, renovated historic buildings, a downtown emerging from ruin and new businesses. His pride is palpable.

Helena even has its first director of an advertising and promotion commission, Julia Malinowski, 27, from Seattle.

Word is spreading beyond the Teach for America crowd.

Recently, graphic designers opened a firm called Thrive in Helena after living for five years in Brooklyn, where “about 200,000 people were trying to do what I wanted to do,” said a co-owner, Terrance Clark.

He has had enough work in the Delta to hire two interns from Midwestern design schools this summer. And Mr. Clark has recruited a group of friends from Indianapolis to come to Helena to work on community projects under his company’s 501(c)(3) umbrella.

Mr. Clark, Ms. Malinowski and the rest work together in a chic business incubator downtown.

The space is airy and open, with interior brick and a glass conference room — sort of like what you would find in Brooklyn.

Deserted Desks: A Business Case For Education Reform

July 1, 2013