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Diplomas and Degree Attainment Are Not Enough. What About Skills?

February 19, 2020

It’s widely believed that when individuals have more education, they will be better suited for today’s economy and have a better chance at favorable life outcomes. Driven by this belief, there has been a more concentrated effort recently by parents, students, policymakers and others in the United States to improve rates of educational attainment. On the surface, these efforts appear to be paying off. Today, a greater proportion of high school students are graduating on time than ever before, and among those who do not, most end up with a high school degree by their early 20s. What’s more, data shows that the millennial generation has obtained the highest levels of postsecondary education of any previous generation in U.S. history.

One would ordinarily expect a commensurate improvement in skills to accompany these recent gains in enrollment and attainment, but as Shakespeare once observed, “All that glitters is not gold.” Mounting evidence suggests that data on educational attainment and results from an array of skills assessments (PDF) are telling divergent stories. Recent research that examines the literacy and numeracy skills of America’s very degreed millennial generation finds high levels of skill deficits. In fact, results from the recent PIAAC international assessment of adult skills show that over 12 million millennials have what experts deem as very low literacy skills, while some 19 million demonstrate very low numeracy skills. These results should be of significant concern given that this is the most degreed cohort in our history.

Data on education in the United States has been formally collected since the late 19th century. Of course, what it means to be educated — and closely related to that, the methods used to gauge progress toward that goal — has varied over time. From its beginnings until the middle of the 20th century, information on education inputs — such as numbers of teachers, schools and students, as well as enrollment and attainment data — were used to understand the nation’s educational progress. Toward the second half of the 20th century, when there was an increased need for highly skilled workers, a move toward including skill proficiency measures was added. Although, perhaps an oversimplification, one could say that skills data emphasized the quality of educational progress, while attainment data emphasized the quantity.

We need to provide necessary investments to ensure many more students leave school with the literacy and numeracy skills required by society and the workplace.

Yet, as we advance deeper into the 21st century, two troubling, paradoxical shifts are emerging. First, at a time when higher levels of skill are essential for long-term success, some evidence suggests we may be losing ground — despite rising enrollment and attainment. Second, and in some ways more perplexing, we are moving away from the focus on ensuring educational attainment comes with skills.

Not all routes to degree completion are created equal. Some states across the country offer “multiple pathways” to attain a high school diploma. Students who have always done well will continue to do so regardless of their pathway: taking and passing courses, scoring well on assessments, demonstrating what they know, and, with degree and skills in hand, advancing into careers or additional education. But for the many others who were lacking in skills and still got across the finish line, the story is very different. While they may have obtained a diploma, have they secured the essential skills needed for success?

A growing body of evidence indicates that poor literacy and numeracy skills demonstrated in school reduce the chances at favorable life outcomes for students. American employers place a high value on skills and effectively find and reward individuals who have them. None of this is meant to diminish the importance of educational attainment. Completing high school and college has significant, positive influences on employment and earnings, as well as a host of personal, familial and civic life outcomes. But allowing students with low levels of literacy skills to attain degrees and diplomas diminishes the fundamental promise of education. This broken promise appears to affect a sizable population in the United States.

“Educational attainment” indicators are created, adopted and used because we have readily available data and they are believed to measure what we care about. They provide a framework that guides our thinking, our policies and our actions toward achieving important national, state and local goals. The waning ability of educational attainment measures to accurately gauge progress on what we care about — a population with essential knowledge and skills — has vast consequences for those without the skills they need, although granted a degree that signals otherwise. It is lived by those who take initiative and pursue higher education, but either aren’t equipped to succeed or struggle in programs that do little to foster skill development — though they nevertheless acquire debt. It also raises critical questions about the desirability of public policies that focus on educational credentials without acknowledging the levels of skills that are associated with those credentials.

Going forward, we need to refocus on skills. We need to provide necessary investments to ensure many more students leave school with the literacy and numeracy skills required by society and the workplace. This will require systemic and sustainable efforts to assure the knowledge and skills that every child needs are developed across the early, middle and high school years.

Irwin Kirsch is the Director of ETS’s Center for Research on Human Capital and Education. Paul Harrington is a labor economist and the Director of Drexel University’s Center for Labor Markets and Policy (CLMP), which examines a variety of human resource development issues and their connections to the labor market.