Carnavale, A. and Rose, S. (2011) The Undereducated American Washington DC: Georgetown University Centre n Education and the Workforce

This short report by two prestigious economists argues that the gap between supply and demand for people with a degree has been slowly widening since 1990. Forty-two percent of U.S.25- to 34-year-olds have college degrees, far below the 55 percent college degree completion rate attained by young adults in Canada, Japan,and South Korea. (Some parts of Canada are now aiming for 70%)

To bring supply and demand back into line, the USA needs to increase the number of Americans (or rather USAnians) with either an associate or bachelors degree or a at least one year of post-secondary education by 20 million by the year 2025. This would mean increasing the growth in the numbers with post-secondary education from the current rate of 1% per annum to 2.6% from today.

They also point out that there is an income premium for those with degrees and thus increasing the number of graduates will reduce income inequity in the USA (but not for those without a degree).


First, it’s good to know that someone in the USA still thinks a college education is not just worthwhile, but economically essential. Certainly the relatively well paid jobs in manufacturing for people with high school diplomas or less are disappearing rapidly, and the growth in jobs is mainly in the knowledge economy, which requires in general high levels of education for its workers. So they are probably correct in arguing that if the USA is to remain economically competitive, it needs to increase the proportion of workers with a high level of education. Nevertheless, there are several points in their argument that concern me.

The first is that their argument is based mainly on extrapolating past trends to the future. Thus it assumes demand for graduates will grow at the same rate over the next 20 years. However, this is not true if the US economy tanks again, and unemployment spikes, especially if this happens in the financial services industry. (No, that could never happen).

Second, it assumes that an associate or bachelor’s degree is the most appropriate form of post-secondary education for nearly everyone. However, we could and should be thinking of other routes to lifelong learning not based solely on a full-time education on campus.

Furthermore, is the need for more abstract thinkers, or for people who are creative and innovative in practical terms? In other words, do we have enough power engineers and too many social anthropologists?

Also, it is not just a quantity issue but also a quality issue: are enough universities teaching in a way that produces the type of people that will be needed in society and the workforce 20 years from now?

And lastly, will having more people with a degree reduce income inequalities in the USA? I don’t think so, when nearly all the rewards from economic growth over the last 20 years have gone to just 3% of Americans, the über-rich (middle class incomes have stagnated, allowing for inflation).

There is really only one way that the USA is going to get out of its economic decline and that is to tax the very wealthy (it’s no good taxing people who don’t have the money – just ask the Greeks) and use the revenues for improving health, education and infrastructure. But I don’t see that happening, and if it doesn’t, the proportion of Americans going to college will actually decline, as will its economy, because it won’t have the numbers of educated people needed in the workforce. So in the end, it’s not an educational or even an economic issue – it’s a political or ideological issue. They are slowly killing themselves because they are not willing to pay taxes. Time to grow up, guys.



  1. Very interesting points, Tony. Although I’m not a fan of taxing the wealthy just because they can afford it, you make some very solid points as to how NOT doing so will lead to less people being able to go to college (which will obviously result in a lack of educated workers needed).

    Does the report assess the percentage needed in the arts vs. sciences?


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