If his name sounds familiar, that's because the small research group he leads at Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce has produced a seemingly endless stream of studies over the last two years that describe, in various ways, the value of college in the labor market. Hundreds of thousands of people—most of them nonacademics—have read those reports, which have received prominent coverage in The Chronicle and in other national media like The New York Times.
In total, the center's message has been overwhelmingly positive for higher education. Despite the long-term growth in college enrollments, and contrary to fashionable speculation that a "higher-education bubble" is about to burst, the center's research shows that college pays, now more than ever. Indeed, the center projects a future shortage of about three million college-educated workers if the nation doesn't increase the number of those receiving college degrees. At a time when public colleges and universities are struggling to get funds from cash-strapped state legislatures, the center's data make a powerful case for new public investment in higher learning. But, as Carnevale is the first to acknowledge, yoking universities to a job-training mission for which they were arguably not designed creates many dangers and complications.
Carnevale himself is an object lesson in the value of higher education. Born into modest economic circumstances, he graduated from Colby College before going to Syracuse University to earn a Ph.D. in public-finance economics. While there, he volunteered to work on the landmark Rodriguez v. San Antonio Independent School District lawsuit that was eventually decided by the Supreme Court in 1973. Barely out of college, he sat in the front of the court's soaring chambers and listened to the justices debate his analysis of profound financial inequities in education for impoverished children. Unfortunately, they decided by a single vote that the injustice, while real, was not unconstitutional.
The suit against the State of Texas threw a wrench in Carnevale's plans to continue academic work at the University of Texas at Austin's school of public affairs. He decided instead to stay in Washington and improve education another way: He was soon responsible for education, training, employment policy, and social services as a staff member on the newly formed Senate Budget Committee.
It's hard to fathom now, but in the mid-1970s, people seriously questioned the relationship between earnings and college education. Media discussion was dominated by books like Richard B. Freeman's The Overeducated American, which predicted that a glut of degrees would push wages for college-educated workers down. Even People magazine weighed in with skepticism: "Is a college degree still a passport to white-collar success?"
So when the federal government tried to tackle employment problems in the 70s, it's perhaps unsurprising that it didn't turn to higher education. Billions of dollars were spent creating hundreds of thousands of publicly subsidized jobs through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. But CETA was politically unpopular and plagued by local corruption. It was repealed in the early 1980s, and the federal government never tried to directly create jobs on such a scale again.
As it happens, that was also when the value of college degrees began to skyrocket. Freeman had it exactly wrong: The value of degrees increased even as the supply of degrees grew. The economy steadily transformed itself to match the advanced skills that higher education conferred. Unlike Europe, America lacked a widespread system of job training through labor unions working in collaboration with government. In part through policy and in part by default, higher education became a place—for most people, the only place—that granted access to jobs and careers that paid enough money to lead a good life.
Carnevale watched all of this happen in real time—first through the budget battles in Congress, where education and training duked it out with national defense. (He still has a scale model of the doomed B-1 bomber on his desk, a gift from an embittered defense contractor.) That was followed by high-level appointments to national commissions by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. As the years passed and college degrees became ever more valuable, Carnevale noticed that the government and the economics profession weren't keeping up. The federal government still had a Labor Department that didn't care much about education and an Education Department that didn't care much about labor. Economists specialized in one or the other but not both, even as the economy increasingly saw educational and labor credentials as one and the same.
Carnevale conceived of the Center on Education and the Workforce as, metaphorically, a small wooden shack in the center of the National Mall at the midpoint between the giant labor and education bureaucracies to the north and south. By taking the time to carefully analyze the complex interaction between different kinds of degrees, career paths, and earnings, the center has come to dominate the national conversation on higher education and the economy in a manner far out of proportion to its size. Carnevale takes pains to emphasize that while degrees matter, some college degrees are far more valuable than others. In times past, people chose a specific industry and built a career of many occupations, rising in the ranks from the loading dock to the factory floor, management, and beyond. Today, people choose an occupation and move through different industries.
Yet political power in America is still dominated by industries, not occupations. This worries Carnevale, as does the awkward fit between the tradition of colleges as wellsprings of knowledge creation and their new occupational role. "Higher education is stuck with job training," he says. "It's a bittersweet reality for them. Colleges would be very small if they didn't serve that function, but if they serve it they have to be accountable for it." Carnevale also emphasizes the role of colleges in helping people become enlightened citizens as vital for democracy. "You don't want a system that just trains foot soldiers for capitalism," he says. At the same time, it's hard to be an enlightened citizen if you can't find a decent job.
As policy makers push to fill the future shortage of college degrees, they will almost certainly focus on practical credentials that lead to employment. This is very clearly what the public wants from higher education, and the people who get those degrees will disproportionately come from middle- and lower-income families that are highly vulnerable in turbulent economic times. Those degree-holders will be more prosperous and secure, and only those who have lived the pain and fear of true economic insecurity can know how much that means. But many will have little contact with the ideas and ideals that characterize the historic core of higher learning.
These knotty problems are at the center of Carnevale's work. It's fortunate that someone who has spent a lifetime thinking about them now has the ear of the wider world.
Kevin Carey is policy director of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington.