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September 2019
If You Can’t Be With the Data You Love: And the Risks of Loving the Data You’re With

Neeta Fogg, Paul Harrington, and Ishwar Khatiwada (Drexel University); Irwin Kirsch, Anita Sands, and Larry Hanover (ETS)

Diverging Stories on Credentials and Skills

Diploma and degree completion have become the fundamental standard for judging the performance of secondary and postsecondary educational institutions. Increasingly, leaders of education and workforce policy and programs assume that these measures of attainment effectively serve as indicators of adequate levels of essential literacy and numeracy skills. Is that assumption sound?

A study by researchers from Drexel University's Center for Labor Markets and Policy and Educational Testing Service’s Center for Research on Human Capital and Education finds that literacy skills of working adults are not as closely connected to levels of educational attainment as widely thought.

Using Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) data on the literacy proficiencies of adults in the United States, the study finds that diploma and degree attainment is a less than satisfactory proxy for skills.

Overall, nearly 34 million employed Americans, or one-fourth of the total workforce (ages 16–65), would be misclassified by relying on credentials to assess their skills, according to the authors.

Significant Implications for Policymakers and Researchers

These findings are important for policymakers and researchers. Relying on educational attainment as a measure of human capital (a proxy for skills) distorts our understandings of the level of human capital that individuals and society in fact have. Rewarding school performance on the basis of the quantity of diplomas and degrees has become a basic driver of education finance in the public secondary and postsecondary education system in the nation. However, the American labor market increasingly rewards higher levels of knowledge and skills.

As the authors note, the paradox for employers is a more highly credentialed workforce with large numbers of skill-deficient workers. The effect is that some employers have adjusted to this development by relying less on academic credentials, and more on alternative testing and screening to make new hires. Furthermore, a substantial number of persons, especially young people who earn education credentials without commensurate levels of skills, are misled into believing that their academic award will translate into labor market success — a belief that is challenged when these skills-deficient individuals face the reality of a labor market that values skills above credentials. Also, scarce education resources can be misallocated as schools seek to raise completion rates, with little or no incentive to bolster the skills of their newly minted graduates.

The implications of this divergence are considerable and discussed in the report. The authors caution that while completing high school and college has significant, positive influences on employment and earnings, as well as on a host of personal, familial, and civic life outcomes, allowing students to attain degrees and diplomas with low levels of literacy skills diminishes the fundamental promise of education. This raises critical questions about the desirability of public policies that focus on educational credentials without equal focus on the levels of skills associated with those credentials.

If You Can’t Be With the Data You Love: And the Risks of Loving the Data You’re With

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Authors

Fogg, Harrington, Khatiwada, Kirsch, Sands, & Hanover

Publication Date

September 2019

The ETS Center for Research on Human Capital and Education

Produces high-quality, evidence-based research that explores critical issues impacting opportunity in America today.

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