Episode 47 - Innovation: Education and Preparation for the Workforce

The current series of podcasts is focused on innovation, and we're excited to showcase ideas from various industries and people worldwide. In episode 47, President Scott L Wyatt and Professor Steve Meredith invite Marty Van Der Werf, associate director for the Georgetown Center on Education in the Workforce, to discuss how the perceptions and expectations for university degrees and the cost of education have changed over the last 30 years.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I'm your host, Steve Meredith, and joining me today, as he always does, is my good friend, President Wyatt.

Scott Wyatt: Well, thanks, Steve, it's good to be here with you. It's gorgeous outside and we've got a very interesting guest.

Meredith: We do. And as part of our ongoing series of podcasts about innovation, one of the things that we look around for are people from the outside who can help point us the way towards innovative practices and things that we may not be paying as much attention to as we should be. And today is one of those guests, a guest from far away joining us by the phone.

Wyatt: Welcome, Marty Van Der Werf. You are the Associate Director for the Georgetown Center on Education in the Workforce and we're visiting with you from your office at Georgetown, I think.

Martin Van Der Werf: Yes, you are. It's a beautiful day here as well. Thank you, it's a pleasure to be here.

Wyatt: Why don't we start this out by acquainting the listeners to the Georgetown Center?

Van Der Werf: So, the Georgetown Center is about 10 years old and it kind of has pioneered a path of looking at value of university credentials. So, we started telling people how much a person who gets a bachelor's degree, say, in nursing makes as opposed to a person who gets a bachelor's degree in business or electrical engineering or history. It's an area of study that we thought was important, mostly because we think it's important to consumers. We think that in this day and age when college is so expensive, that—and often students take out loans in order to go to college—that they have an understanding of what the return on investment might be. So, we started publishing that research, it's probably what we're best known for, but we also do a lot of other research around equity in higher education, around trends in the workforce and how certain post-secondary credentials pay off in the workforce. We also have done a lot of work looking at different sub-markets within the workforce, like the workforce for people who have less than a bachelor's degree but more than a high school diploma.

Wyatt: So, I use a lot of your data regularly, and one thing…

Van Der Werf: Oh, good.

Wyatt: In fact, this time of year, I do a circuit through some of the local high schools and get up and talk to them about why they should go to college and I put up your data and show them, “This is how much money you can expect to earn if you do this or this or this or the other thing.” And the end of my story is, “You really should go to college.” [Laughs]

Van Der Werf: Yeah.

Wyatt: Get a good degree.

Van Der Werf: Yeah. You know, so, you think about this history of the country and you don't have to go back that far. About 1980, a huge proportion of the workforce had no more than a high school diploma, and that was fine. We were a manufacturing economy then, and you could get a good, family-sustaining job at a factory just about anywhere in the United States and make a good living. And that really began to change in the 1980s, and we, ever since then, have become a country whose economy is more and more focused on employees who have at least some post-secondary credentials. And that doesn't always have to be a bachelor's degree. It can be a certificate, it can be a license, it can be an associate degree…all of those things have value in the workforce. But we've reached a point in this country where only about 20% of all good jobs—and those are jobs that pay at least $35,000 a year—only about 20% of them go to people with no more than a high school diploma.

Wyatt: That's a small number. The…I think some of the data that I have seen relative to the creation of jobs or the loss of jobs since the end of the great recession, or the start of the great recession, 2008, shows that we've lost—I don't have the numbers in front of me—but it seems like it's something like 5.5 million jobs in this country for those that have a high school diploma or less.

Van Der Werf: Yeah. Yeah, I think it was even greater than that. And in the recovery from the recession, too, almost unmet, almost every job that was created was going to somebody with at least some college education. The recovery for high school educated workers was very, very slow.

Wyatt: Yeah. And we find ourselves 10 years after that with less jobs in this country for those with a high school diploma.

Van Der Werf: Yeah.

Wyatt: A little bit more for certificates and associate degrees and most of the growth is bachelor's degree and higher. Is that the way you see it?

Van Der Werf: That has been where most of the growth has been, especially if you look at a category that we like to call “good jobs.” And the data that I have, I was looking back at some data from 1991 compared to 2016…at that point in 1991, when you looked at the good jobs, they were almost evenly divided between people with a bachelor's degree, people with a high school diploma and people with a credential in between. And in the 25 years in since then, the number of good jobs for people with a bachelor's degree have doubled, the number of jobs for people with a high school diploma or less has decreased, and the number of good jobs for people with what we call “middle skills”—that is, between high school and a bachelor's degree—has increased by about 25%, but it's still a pretty low number. It's about 15.7 million jobs for people in that category. That's not small change, but it compares to the 36 million good jobs for people who have a bachelor's degree.

Wyatt: This is kind of a…so, here's a question about this. If we were to go back 25 years or 30 years, the perception of the need for higher education as it relates to a job versus the perception of higher education for the sake of personal wellness and learning, education for the sake of learning, have you seen a change in the perception or the expectations for a degree?

Van Der Werf: Yeah. You know, I always think about it this way. And I think you're absolutely right, first of all, but when I think of the economy of say, the 1970s—and I'll get back to 25 years ago—but when I think about it in the 1970s when we were very much more a manufacturing economy, if you had a college degree, the expectation is that you were the boss. You could expect that you would be managing the place. Now, at a manufacturing plant, you might need a bachelor's degree to operate the machinery. So, that's how much it's really changed. But 25 years ago, I think that you're right, the perception was primarily a place to enrich yourself and to explore possibilities for what you could be in this economy and in this country. Now, it's become…a college degree has become almost a necessary ticket to get a middle-class job, and so, I think that the way people perceive it has gone from, “Oh, that would be really enriching and it's really an extra to my life” to become something that's absolutely necessary to my life. And when something like that changes, then what people are expecting to get out of college changes as well.

Wyatt: How do we respond to that?

Meredith: Yeah, or have we?

Wyatt: Or have we?

Meredith: Yeah, I wonder if we're not still locked back in that older mindset a little bit in higher ed?

Van Der Werf: Well, I think that every student who's coming to your college and coming to every other college, one of the first things they have on their mind is, “How is this going to help me get a job? How am I going to be able to turn this into the sort of career that I envision for myself?” And so, whereas 25 years ago, people might have said, “I'm just exploring. I'm wondering about how this might apply to something I would like to do or at least try and see if I'm interested in it.” Today, there is very much a straight-line thought that's going through people's heads that, “This has got to work out for me because I don't have a plan B.”

Wyatt: Yeah. We do surveys of our students when they come in and ask them, “What is the number one reason why you are coming?” And it's almost 100% that say, “I'm coming because I want to get a job.”

Van Der Werf: Yeah.

Wyatt: Or, “I want to make more money.” Was that the same way 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago?

Van Der Werf: If you look at the surveys from back then, the number one response would be, typically, “Why are you going to college?” And typically, the answer would be “To learn. To get educated in an area I didn't know about.” To get a job would be number two probably back then, but that's changed dramatically. You just don't find that many people anymore with the luxury of saying, “I'd like to spend three years just learning and figuring out my path.” There's a lot more pressure on people to sort of know from the beginning what it is that they want to do, and if they don't know at the very beginning, to know after say, one year. Because, among other things, the cost of college is so much greater than it was 25 years ago. Back then, you could go, you could explore. If you took a year off, when you went back, the cost, in relative terms, was still pretty low. Now, you just don't feel like you've got that luxury anymore. You might have taken out a loan, you might have had to take on a job to help you pay for your school costs, and I think you feel a lot more pressure to just finish and know what you want to do and get to that degree. And that degree in itself becomes the goal, right?

Wyatt: Mhmm. Yeah, it's…most of the faculty at Southern Utah University are thinking careers for their students.

Van Der Werf: Yeah.

Wyatt: But, of course, there are always at every university and college some faculty and staff members who are still hoping that the students aren't thinking about a job, they're just thinking about learning for the sake of learning. Learning for the sake of enriching their lives, and maybe partly that's good and we're happy that people are still hanging onto that, and partly, maybe it's a holdover from the good old days that are past.

Van Der Werf: Yeah. Yeah, I think that learning for the sake of learning is fantastic, and frankly, if you're looking at a student who is an undergraduate coming right out of high school, they are at a pretty tender age where they don't know a lot about their potential. They're just beginning to know that. In colleges today, though, the average student is older and so, the equation of going to college has become even more transactional. And so, I'm 26 and I've got 60 college credits but I really can't turn it into anything and so I need to figure out a path and I want to spend as little amount of time getting through that path. And so, there needs to be something in these classes I'm taking that unlocks potential for me. So, that is the reality of what's going on. I think for some faculty members, certainly, you want to have some students who are just becoming self-actualized and who are just beginning to learn about topics that they've never considered before. There is room for that, and frankly, part of higher education—an important part of higher education—is general education. The core liberal arts curriculum where you actually learn a lot of the skills that are important to employers, like working in teams, oral and written communication, critical thinking…all of these things that employers say are important. Those should be part of a good, solid post-secondary education. But, as the world has sped up, I think it's harder and harder for young students to understand that, “This process I'm going through need not have at every minute of the day a means to an end. Sometimes, it's just for the pleasure of learning, and actually, through that pleasure of learning, I'm becoming a more complex, competent individual.” That's the difficulty that we're facing right now. A lot of people may want that to be the primary end of higher education. I think it's got to be a component of higher education, but the larger picture has to be that this is within the context of preparing this person to enter the workforce and get gainful employment.

Wyatt: Yeah, it's really kind of on us because we know that the students almost exclusively come—I mean, the number one reason for almost every student is to get a job—so we know that's their goal, we need to serve that goal.

Van Der Werf: Yeah.

Wyatt: We know that the legislature that funds us and everybody else is thinking of that same goal. But as they're coming through our school, it's up to us to help them feel inspired about learning for the sake of learning. So, that's…we can always find ways to sneak that in. But as long as we're continuing to help them, it seems to me that today—and I don't know this, it just anecdotally it just feels to me that…you can't see Steve and I. We look a lot younger than we sound.

Meredith: We do? [All laugh]

Wyatt: Because you can't see…since you can't see our grey hair, I can tell you anything, right?

Meredith: Yeah. [All laugh]

Wyatt: But it seems to me…when we were in college versus the students that are in college today, it feels to me like they are more focused on relevance than maybe we were.

Van Der Werf: Yeah.

Wyatt: Relevance to a job.

Van Der Werf: And I went to college in the early 80s so, I'll date myself for all of our listeners, and I remember that when I was an undergraduate and I went to a college where there was this core of liberal arts curriculum and I was a journalist major and I have to admit that I sort of chaffed at it a little bit myself thinking, “What relevance does this have?” And I think I only gained the perspective to understand what the relevance was pretty much after I graduated and began to think about some of the skills that I had learned and some of the ways that it taught me to reason once I got into the workplace. I don't know that I would have had that capacity for complexity if I hadn't taken those classes.

Meredith: Right.

Van Der Werf: But when you take them, it's really hard to understand what the relevance of it might be and I think that it's pretty common for people to chaff at it. I would agree also, however, that today's students probably chaff at it even more because they want that straight line to “What's the outcome going to be?”

Wyatt: So, you were in college in the early 80s? That puts at about our age.

Meredith: Yes, you're about…yeah. I started in I think '79. '78 actually. So, Marty, I worked for 25+ years in the two-year college system and there were lots of frustrating things about it, not the least of which was you never really got to see a person finish in the traditional sense. They would come in and transfer out quickly. But one of the things that I thought the two-year schools did quite well was they were pretty upfront about saying, “This is an occupational program. It's straightforward, we're not going to burden you with a bunch of” and “burden” is the wrong word, but “We're not going to place a bunch of gen ed curriculum on top of this or if it is, it's going to be limited.” And then, “These are more traditional academic programs. The idea is that you are going to study those and then you're going to transfer to a university where you'll finish in that academic program. And I've often wondered if, particularly, as you say, where timelines now are much shorter. That was another great thing about the two-year school is that it typically was inexpensive enough that people could come in a float and not go into too much debt just trying to figure out what they really wanted to do. But now, where expense is high and time is of the essence for most of our students, even at a small, regional university like we are that has relatively very low tuition, I've often wondered if it wouldn't be in our best interest to just simply say, “These are primarily occupational programs, and these are primarily not occupational programs. They may lead you to a job, but it won't have as straight a line as perhaps this one will.” And to identify them upfront and a little bit more clearly maybe using data of the type that you folks come up with.

Van Der Werf: Mhmm. Yeah, and those colleges that you're talking about, two-year colleges and small, regional relatively non-selective public universities are very important. They educate about 50% of all college students in this country. We think about…we have this picture of college being young students going off to this kind of leafy green, ivy covered campus and spending four years there and that's just really not the way it is anymore. It used to be that way, but it's not any longer. We…I think what we've done in this country is we've spent too much time focusing on the elite colleges and not enough on the colleges that are really educating students and places like your college and the two-year colleges are really the places where people are going to to really get that entry into higher education. We don't fund them enough, we don't give them enough options, but I think what you're getting at, too, is very important. Because another intimidating thing about that picture of college that I just painted is that when you're 30 years old and you really need to upskill in this workforce and you think about college, you think, “Well, that's not for me, I'm too old. That's for younger people. I didn't want to go at the time so I guess I can't anymore.” The fact of the matter is that college needs to be kind of a lifetime exploration point for a lot of people. We're all going to need in our careers to continue to upskill and get new credentials and part of it is explaining to people that, “You can come to a two-year college and you can get out in six or nine months with a credential that is actually going to have workplace value.” I don't think a lot of people understand that, and I also don't think that colleges should be shy about explaining what the options are. “We would like it and you're going to do better if you get a higher credential, but if you only have the limited amount of time and the limited amount of money, there are things that you can get out of the way in six or nine months that actually will have value.” And when I think about what we're doing as a higher education system, what we're hoping to do is to serve the public that needs this product. And so, let's serve them at all kinds of different levels and not be shy about it.

Meredith: Yeah, I had, actually, a very personal anecdote. One of the young women that cuts my hair here locally, I know when to a short-term cosmetology school so that she can afford to come to SUU, where she wants to be a nurse. But it was very important for her to be able to have a job to pay for that. She's a single mother, has to have something that will support her and her family and allow her some childcare and I think this is, as you suggest, this is much more the typical student these days than the atypical student.

Van Der Werf: Yeah. Yeah, and when we look at the data, and I understand your frustration with being at a two-year college and you don't get to see people “finish” but the two-year college in this country has such an important role because, for many of the students who start at a two-year college, they may never finish. The data shows that they are unlikely to ever get a bachelor's degree if they start at a two-year college. But within that two-year college, they can get credentials. If you get an associate's degree in a technology related area, chances are that you're going to make more in your career than a lot of bachelor's degree holders. And so, these are important places that are producing people with real skills and they're an important part of the infrastructure in higher education. If a person does start at a two-year college and then transfers to a place like Southern Utah, that is actually a very low-cost and intelligent way to get to the bachelor's degree because you can do it within a local area and get to a degree that didn't cost you a ton of money and has real payoff at the end.

Wyatt: Yeah, so let's…what do you think, for those of us that are running colleges and universities in this country, what would you say the number one message we should take from the research that you've been doing at the Georgetown Center?

Van Der Werf: Well, I think that we are going to get into a situation in this country—I mean, I think we're already in a situation in this country—where we're always going to have to be defending the cost of higher education. And you were saying that at Southern Utah that it's a relatively low tuition institution, but, probably for many of your students it's still a very high price tag.

Wyatt: It's still money. It's still money…

Van Der Werf: And so, for them, I'm sorry…

Wyatt: It's still money.

Van Der Werf: Yeah, it's still money in the end and it's still…it's opportunity cost among other things. “I could be spending this money on other things, so if I'm going to spend it on this, what am I going to have to show for it at the end?” And I think that that is, although people…some people in higher education think that it's kind of unsavory to talk about that equation, “Oh, what's the return on investment?” and that sort of thing…I just think that we've worked ourselves into a situation in this country with the cost of higher education and over a trillion dollars in student loan debt that we should expect that our customers are going to have that question and that we need to have ready answers for them. And I think that rather than being a conversation that we would rather not have, it's a conversation that we ought to be ready to have and happy to defend. You know, and part of it is I think what you talk about when you go out to some of the local high schools and show data about why it's important that people go to college. It may not be the number one thing that every 18-year-old graduate of high school wants to do, they might have other things that they want to do. They might want to work for a few years, they might want to join the military, they  might want to, I don't know, go out and backpack for a year or something like that.

Wyatt: Yeah, backpack through Europe.

Van Der Werf: It may not be the highest thing on their agenda, but eventually, they probably need to find their way back. And so, part of what I would say would be the biggest takeaway from our research is the  idea that in the end, if people want to have a family-sustaining income and a good job that is going to be productive, at some point in their lives—and it doesn't have to be when they're 18—they are going to need to invest in higher education. And that there are a bunch of different entry points into higher education. I think we can't talk enough about these things, and I think frankly, the way the economy is working, the way higher education is working, we're all going to have to have these discussions more and more going forward.

Wyatt: What if you were all of the sudden planted as the president of a public, regional university? What would you do? Just based on what your perception is of the average university in this country? Knowing the strengths and weaknesses, what would you do?

Meredith: Differently, maybe,

Wyatt: Yeah, differently.

Van Der Werf: [Laughs] You know, it's…in this country, we've got such a…when you look at the geographic patterns of what's happening in this country, it differs so much from one part of the country to the other. So, in Utah, one of the advantages that you have is that you're in an area of the country that's really growing.

Wyatt: That's right.

Van Der Werf: Put me in a regional college in Utah, I've got a whole different set of concerns than say one in, say, Pennsylvania where population is, at best, flat and maybe in some areas depending on where I am, it's actually declining. What I would probably do, though, is I would want to talk with my faculty and talk with my administration and tell people that, “We're in the business of serving the needs of these students, at whatever part of their lives they're in. That what they're looking for in coming to our institution is hope and inspiration and the act of enrolling in a college is one of the most aspirational financial transactions that anyone can ever make, and we need to keep that in mind every day when we're serving people on that campus. They came to us because they're thinking about the rest of their lives and what they can do with it. And so, when they write that check, when they enroll, when they go to that first class, it's all about hope. It's all about ‘What can I become when I am done going through this place? What will this place make of me?' And we all need to invest in that investment that people are making. We all need to be part of that and remember why it is that they're coming to us.”

Wyatt: That is a great line.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: That inspires me, actually, because that is what we're doing. This is a great industry.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: This is the industry where we're…the product is the improvement of people's lives.

Van Der Werf: Yeah, and part of the product is hope and dreams and what people see in themselves that they want to improve. And for some people, it's, “How can I turn a corner?” Or, “How can I unlock potential I think I have?” Or, from a college perspective, “How can I introduce students to strengths and interests that they don't even know they have?” The exciting thing about higher education is being involved in that. It's being involved in helping people become their best selves, and I think that's inspiring every day.

Wyatt: It is. It is really inspiring, it is a lot of fun, and to be able to…both Steve and I teach a class. Steve teaches…Steve, you've taught for a long, long time.

Meredith: Right. Faculty has been my primary assignment throughout my career.

Van Der Werf: Oh, uh-huh.

Wyatt: And I just teach once a year. Once every semester for a hobby. [Laughs] Just to keep in connection with students.

Meredith: But it is gratifying, and that's why you keep doing.

Van Der Werf: Yeah.

Meredith: That's why I keep doing it.

Van Der Werf: That's great. That's great and I'm actually pursing a master's degree right now in my advanced age because I hadn't been in the classroom in so long, and I just thought to myself, “I should go back. I should see what it's like.” And so, therefore, I have a little bit better platform to know what I was talking about.

Wyatt: Yeah. It's fun to be able to go back and do it when you're not thinking about anything other than, “I just want to learn.”

Meredith: I just want to learn.

Van Der Werf: Yeah.

Wyatt: And we appreciate it. But as we've been talking, almost everyone in the class is thinking, “How do I improve my life and get a job and become self-sustaining and take care of a family or take care of me?”

Van Der Werf: Yeah. Yeah, it's…we talked about those earlier, but there was that sort of sweet spot in the history of American higher education, and if you look back, say, 100 years, only about…the numbers are somewhere around 10% to 15% of people went to college. And, of course, that was almost exclusively—even 100 years ago—it was almost exclusively men, and it was primarily white men. And so, if you think about that, how much it's changed. There were women going to college, but women didn't become college students in great numbers until well after World War II. And, of course nowadays, almost 60% of undergraduates are women.

Wyatt: That's right.

Van Der Werf: So, that's changed dramatically in the last 50 years. Just in the…I'm sorry, in the last 100 years. And then if you look at blacks and Latinos, college was unattainable for many black and Latino students. Nowadays, blacks and Latinos go to college in numbers proportionate to their percentage of the college-age population. And so, college has done a great job of reaching out to everybody. Everyone goes to college now in great numbers. Now, the graduation rates, especially for blacks and Latinos, are not great. They're certainly not as high as they are for either whites or Asians, but the fact that they're enrolling and that they're finding opportunity in college is really a fantastic achievement on behalf of the post-secondary community in this country. What we need to work on more now is identifying those students and seeing them through to graduation, because part of the mission, I think, of public colleges and universities is to serve all of the members of the community and give everyone and opportunity. They're all part of the community. Everyone is paying taxes—some people not as much as others—but we're all members of the community and we all need to be served equally. And so, there's a lot of challenges, but higher education also has to look back and think, “We've had a lot of success.” The fact that it's become a much more democratic institution in this country is actually something to applaud. We have a lot more work to do, but we've made a lot of progress.

Wyatt: Yeah, and we look at…we talked a minute ago about the cost, and this is a fun statistic, and that is only 38% of our students end up borrowing money.

Van Der Werf: Hmm.

Wyatt: The rest of them pay it with personal resources or family or grants or whatever it might be. So, 38% of our graduates leave with some student loan debt, and the average amount for those students is $16,000. So, it's not that much debt. And then when we look at the data for the difference in Utah between the median salary for somebody who is a high school graduate only versus someone who has a bachelor's degree, the difference in median salary is about $16,000.

Meredith: It's about that. It's about worth that. [Laughs]

Wyatt: It's almost exactly the same number.

Van Der Werf: Yeah. And the statistics you're quoting are just for Southern Utah, correct?

Wyatt: Yeah, for Utah.

Meredith: Yeah, it's a good statistic for us.

Van Der Werf: Yeah.

Wyatt: It's for the whole state because we have students from all over the state that come here.

Van Der Werf: Right. Yeah, and…

Wyatt: We have students from all over the country that come here, but it's mostly Utah.

Van Der Werf: Yeah, and it's great that Utah has actually been a state that's been able to keep down tuition costs because tuition costs have really risen very quickly in a lot of other states around the country. In fact, on a percentage basis, tuition has been rising faster at public institutions than at private ones. And so, even the best “low-cost alternative” in most parts of the country has become pretty expensive. So, I think the average student loan debt now across the country, and this includes both publics and privates for people getting out is now upwards of about $30,000. So, Utah is significantly below that.

Wyatt: Yeah. Well, it has been a delight to visit with you. Thank you so much for giving us your time.

Van Der Werf: Oh, it's been a pleasure speaking with you, thank you so much.

Wyatt: I hope your day continues well in Georgetown. My favorite restaurant, by the way…one of my favorite restaurants is in Georgetown.

Meredith: What's that?

Van Der Werf: Ah?

Wyatt: It's called Zed's.

Van Der Werf: OK, yeah, it's an Ethiopian restaurant?

Wyatt: It's an Ethiopian restaurant. I love…every time I'm in Georgetown, I try to go there and eat with my fingers. [All laugh]

Van Der Werf: Yeah, I know it. I know it. Well, thank you. I have to say it's been many years since I've been in Cedar City, but I'd love to come back at some point. [All laugh]

Meredith: Well, come back. We'll treat you nice if you come back.

Van Der Werf: [Laughs] Thanks again for having me, I appreciate it.

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. We've had as our guest today Marty Van Der Werf, who is the Associate Director of the Center for Education of Workforce at Georgetown University and we've been delighted to have him, and, as always, we're delighted to have you as our listeners. We'll be back again soon, bye-bye.