The Perils of Investing Only in the ‘Winners’

The U.S. is lagging behind other countries in its efforts to maximize the potential of all of its people.

US President Barack Obama tours a class at Bladensburg High School April 7, 2014 in Bladensburg, Maryland. Obama visited to school to announce 24 recipients of $107 million in Youth CareerConnect grants, including $7 million for Bladensburg, intended to help better prepare students for higher education. 
AFP/Getty Images
Ronald Brownstein
April 10, 2014, 5 p.m.

The money in­volved was re­l­at­ively small. But when Pres­id­ent Obama on Monday an­nounced a new grant pro­gram to en­cour­age com­munit­ies to de­vel­op hy­brid high schools that blend a sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tion with ca­reer train­ing and col­lege cred­it, he cor­rectly iden­ti­fied a chal­lenge that is grow­ing stead­ily more ur­gent: widen­ing the circle of young Amer­ic­ans with the skills to reach the middle class.

On bal­ance, the evid­ence doesn’t sup­port the of­ten-ex­pressed fear that a short­age of ne­ces­sary skills — a skills gap — is mean­ing­fully en­lar­ging today’s un­em­ploy­ment rate. If em­ploy­ers really lacked enough high-skilled ap­plic­ants for avail­able open­ings, wages for such work­ers would be rising. And there’s no sign that is hap­pen­ing, as Bur­eau of Labor Stat­ist­ics Com­mis­sion­er Erica Groshen noted at a Na­tion­al Journ­al for­um this week. But over the long term, a de­fi­cit of skilled work­ers could con­strain pro­ductiv­ity gains, widen in­equal­ity, and prompt em­ploy­ers to loc­ate de­mand­ing, high-wage jobs over­seas.

The skill level of the adult Amer­ic­an work­force fol­lows pat­terns fa­mil­i­ar from the col­lege out­comes for our young people. At its pin­nacle, the Amer­ic­an high­er-edu­ca­tion sys­tem is a mar­vel that lures the best and bright­est from around the globe. Yet in 11 oth­er coun­tries, a lar­ger share of young people now com­plete post­sec­ond­ary de­grees than in the U.S. And the Amer­ic­an stu­dents who cross that threshold tend to be those with the good sense to be born in­to op­por­tun­ity: Chil­dren whose par­ents hold col­lege de­grees are now five times more likely to gradu­ate them­selves than those whose par­ents do not.

The in­ter­na­tion­al Or­gan­iz­a­tion for Eco­nom­ic Co­oper­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment found sim­il­ar res­ults when it con­duc­ted a ground­break­ing study last fall of the skills held by the adult work­force in ma­jor eco­nom­ies around the globe. On tests that meas­ured com­pet­ency in read­ing, math, and prob­lem-solv­ing, U.S. adults scored be­low the in­ter­na­tion­al av­er­age each time. Bril­liant Amer­ic­an in­nov­at­ors such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuck­er­berg have defined the In­form­a­tion Age as much as Rock­e­feller and Carne­gie shaped the in­dus­tri­al one, but over­all the U.S. trailed 15 coun­tries (of 23 meas­ured) in read­ing, 20 in math, and 13 in prob­lem-solv­ing.

Part of the prob­lem was that Amer­ica’s best per­formers as a group didn’t match the stand­ards of the highest fli­ers in Nor­d­ic or Asi­an coun­tries. But the lar­ger reas­on for the dis­ap­point­ing U.S. per­form­ance is that our res­ults dis­played what the OECD au­thors called a “par­tic­u­larly large gap” between those at the top and the bot­tom. The spread between the per­form­ance of adults with col­lege de­grees and adults with only high school de­grees was lar­ger in the U.S. than any­where else. The gap between the per­form­ance of adults whose par­ents had ob­tained a col­lege de­gree and those who had not also ranked among the largest. The dis­tance in lit­er­acy between work­ers with the most and least edu­ca­tion was more than one-third lar­ger in the U.S. than in chart-top­pers Ja­pan and Fin­land; the lit­er­acy gap in the U.S. between work­ers whose par­ents had ob­tained the most and least edu­ca­tion was more than twice as large as in Ja­pan and 50 per­cent lar­ger than in Fin­land.

These find­ings send a com­mon mes­sage: While the U.S. con­tin­ues to nur­ture is­lands of spec­tac­u­lar achieve­ment, it is less com­mit­ted than its com­pet­it­ors to max­im­iz­ing the po­ten­tial of all of its people. The flag­ship U.S. col­leges and uni­versit­ies, which still re­cruit dis­pro­por­tion­ately from af­flu­ent white fam­il­ies, spend at least twice as much per stu­dent and pro­duce far bet­ter res­ults in gradu­ation and em­ploy­ment than the less-se­lect­ive pub­lic four- and two-year in­sti­tu­tions that en­roll most of the grow­ing num­bers of minor­ity stu­dents.

Like­wise, the OECD study found that the Amer­ic­an work­ers who re­ceive the most train­ing on the job are those with the most-ad­vanced skills to be­gin with. (This prob­lem is more com­mon in oth­er coun­tries, too.) In the U.S. edu­ca­tion­al and train­ing sys­tem, “we in­vest only in people who do well,” An­thony Carne­vale, dir­ect­or of the Geor­getown Uni­versity Cen­ter on Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force, said at the Na­tion­al Journ­al for­um. “Every new dol­lar in the Amer­ic­an sys­tem only goes to­ward the win­ners.”

The Youth Ca­reer­Con­nect grants Obama an­nounced Monday of­fer one way to push back against those trends. These in­vest­ments, in in­sti­tu­tions from the P-TECH high school af­fil­i­ated with IBM in New York City to six tech­no­logy-fo­cused ca­reer academies in Los Angeles, build on prom­ising mod­els that al­low young people to sim­ul­tan­eously earn high school and com­munity-col­lege cred­it tar­geted to­ward job-spe­cif­ic skills in areas from health to man­u­fac­tur­ing, while also ap­pren­ti­cing with em­ploy­ers. “This isn’t a pan­acea, but I think this is a very prom­ising mod­el,” Labor Sec­ret­ary Thomas Perez told me at the for­um.

As Carne­vale says, “The old Amer­ic­an com­pet­it­ive­ness mod­el” of tol­er­at­ing me­diocre edu­ca­tion­al res­ults for most while in­cub­at­ing a world-class elite “is not go­ing to work in the fu­ture” as in­ter­na­tion­al com­pet­it­ors mint lar­ger num­bers of their own top tal­ents. Tra­di­tion­ally, in­vest­ments in young people from mod­est back­grounds like the in­nov­at­ive hy­brid train­ing pro­grams Obama boos­ted have been jus­ti­fied mostly on grounds of fair­ness. But in­creas­ingly, such in­ter­ven­tions look in­dis­pens­able to Amer­ica’s com­pet­it­ive­ness.

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