We started a new project back in June focused on covering the connections between education and work. It’s a topic getting a lot of attention in public-policy circles but not one that’s regularly covered on the ground.
With Work Shift,
we’re interested in asking what’s working, what’s not, and what might in places around the country. We talked with Elyse Ashburn
, our Work Shift editor, about what she’s found as she’s led reporting dedicated to these intersecting worlds.
Q. What has surprised you or struck you the most?
Two things immediately come to mind. First, I’ve been struck by how much the conversation, even in relatively elite circles, has moved beyond the question of whether career outcomes are a valid measure of higher education. Even five years ago, you would have heard a lot more, “Well, higher education is about a lot more than just jobs.” And that’s true, of course. But it’s also true that career outcomes matter a lot for students—especially students who come from less-advantaged backgrounds and are looking to move up the economic ladder. That seems to just be much more widely accepted now.
This feels noteworthy to me, not just because it’s a big shift, but because that now allows higher education to focus on: Okay what career outcomes matter—employment, wages, progression, meaning—and for whom? And how do you go about measuring those things and designing education and support programs with them in mind?
And those questions of “Okay, now what?” are where the reporting at Work Shift is focused.
The second thing is, frankly, kind of obvious—but I think hidden in a lot of conversations around higher education—and that’s the fact that we could do a lot to improve workforce outcomes by focusing on a few key areas.
You see this in analyses like the one Michael Itzkowitz of Third Way recently did on program ROI using College Scorecard data. There are fields like cosmetology that are notorious under-performers, but still enroll a lot of people. And then there are others, like healthcare, that are high-growth, high-potential fields and that justifiably attract a lot of students. But many of the jobs, especially at the certificate and associate level, that are high growth don’t pay much above poverty wages, and that’s a huge challenge for the ROI of allied health programs. Addressing that is, of course, not easy—but even making incremental improvements could improve a lot of lives because the numbers are so huge.
Q. Why does this coverage matter? What’s at stake—for individuals, for the workforce, for communities, for society?
What’s at stake? To me, the fundamental issue is that millions of Americans have been told that education is the way to build a better life. For lots of people, that means a better job—one that can support a family and provides some basic dignity. And there’s tons of data showing that, on average
, people are better off getting more education. But there are also a ton of different statistics I could cite—the 36 million people
who started a credential but never finished, the 4 in 10 recent graduates
who are underemployed—that show that, for millions of people, those average outcomes don’t matter. The current systems aren’t working for them. And those tend to be people of color, people from low-income backgrounds, people who most need education to put them on a different path.
So, to me, those are the stakes: making good on the promise of economic opportunity in this country. And that’s why I’m drawn to this work.
++ Good reads from Work Shift: