US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty member Cecilia Rouse is a labor economist and dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. She spoke to the Partnership’s communications director, Lionel Foster, about why well-being is about much more than income and some of the barriers to educational access and completion.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and space.
As an economist, you could have chosen to pursue any number of topics. Why have you focused on education?
Labor economists study the labor force. And for a productive labor force, it's important for people to be as productive as possible and to flourish. Importantly, by “flourishing” I also mean that we want people to have full, enriching lives.
I enjoy focusing on issues in education because it is a very important factor for both the labor market and for individual well-being.
I think there may be a number of people who would be pleasantly surprised to hear an economist describe her priority as trying to help people live “full, enriching lives." That resonates with the definition of mobility that the Partnership has developed. It has three principles. Economic success is one, but we also include autonomy and power and being valued in community.
Economists get a bad rap, because people think we only care about money. They think we care about the profits of firms and the income of consumers. On the consumer side, we actually believe that people maximize utility. And utility is not just your salary. It's not just your income. Rather, it's your happiness and overall well-being. So some economists actually study and try to measure happiness, which encompasses many things, but it is far from a straight-forward exercise to do so.
As a nation, are we investing enough in higher education and the returns that it can bring to the entire economy?
Personally, I think we should be investing more and probably could be investing more. One of the challenges for US higher education is that the vast majority of students who attend a post-secondary institution are attending a public institution. And we traditionally finance them at the state level. So each state has its own public higher education system. The deal that is made between generations of taxpayers and students is essentially that taxpayers today pay a bit more in taxes. Those taxes support a robust public education system for the students who graduate from high schools in that state and go to the universities and colleges in that state. Then, once the students graduate, they remain in the state and become the workers who would then pay the taxes to support the next generation.
This system works as long as students grow up, get educated, and then work in the same state. With increased mobility across state lines, especially among those who have a four-year college education, what happens is that many students go to the public institution that is subsidized by the taxpayers of that state and then move to another state, thereby violating the inter-generational deal.
This is one reason I believe we’re seeing a breakdown in state subsidization and investment in higher education. Public subsidies have dropped by roughly half over the last 30 to 40 years, which is a problem. There has been some help for students from lower-income families with national tax credits and increases in Pell grants at the federal level, but that's a different political economy model than what we've traditionally had here in the US.
When I was preparing for college, I remember feeling overwhelmed by the choice of schools, costs, and financing options. We have a college application process that can be daunting for everyone but potentially insurmountable for students without substantial resources. Is that what you see when you look at the US system?
Yes. The post-secondary landscape in the United States is very decentralized, and it's large. You can go to a four-year college, a two-year college, a less-than-two-year college, a not-for-profit college, a public college, or a for-profit institution. One of the great strengths of the US higher education system is that we have many different options for students. But obviously those options also bring complexity about what those different choices mean.
I think it's confusing for everybody. However, if your parents can just afford to write a check, you can avoid some of the complexity—especially on the financial aid side—but it doesn't mean it wasn't confusing to you.
And if you are a lower-income student, your parents might not have been through the entire college application process and therefore don't have the experience to guide you through it. Your school may not be able to support you either as many guidance counselors have very large caseloads. As a result, many students are left perplexed without much support.
Those are issues of educational access, but in your research, you’ve been more focused on completion. Why?
The US has one of the highest rates of educational access in the world. While our preeminence has slipped some in the past couple of decades, it is still high compared to a lot of other countries. In contrast, while we used to have high rates of completion (as reflected in the overall level of educational attainment among adults), our performance more recently lags our peers’.
There are many reasons students don't complete a degree or certificate. One is that we have many “open-access” institutions, such as community colleges, where you don't have to apply ahead of time for admission. As long as you have a high school degree or can demonstrate an ability to benefit, the institution will admit you. That's a great thing. At community colleges, in particular, the tuition is typically at least half that of a four-year college education, and students often live at home; the colleges often offer very flexible class scheduling. So students often don't have to give up their job in order to attend college. Also, post-secondary education is not for everybody, so our open-access, low-cost community colleges allow students to try it out and see whether it's for them without too much of a sacrifice. This means that some fraction of students who don't complete do so because it's just not right for them. My concern is the group of students that want to complete a post-secondary credential and still do not manage to do so.
Some have predicted for years now that the proliferation of online courses will expand educational access and lower costs. Are you hopeful that this will happen?
It's funny. We talk about MOOCs, massive open online courses, as if the idea of not being in a physical classroom is new, but we've always had correspondence courses. It's not as though it's new that an institution can reach people who are very far away. That said, for those with Internet access, who cannot attend a typical institution due to distance or cost, and are motivated, then the opportunity to participate in post-secondary education through a MOOC obviously opens a door that they otherwise would not have.
But in terms of someone who is weighing a MOOC versus actually going to a class, it is much less clear that the MOOC will provide them true access to education. The completion rates in many of these courses is strikingly low. The challenge is that oftentimes, someone might be enrolling in a MOOC because their lives are fairly complicated. They are trying to juggle a job. They might have dependents and other responsibilities. They may live in an area where there's a community college, where they could walk in and take a class, but the class offerings may not be compatible with their schedule. Well, that same person is going to have many distractions during the day and many things that compete for his or her time. So actually enrolling, logging on, watching a MOOC, and committing to completing it—I think the discipline and structure that requires is a challenge. As for the promise of MOOCs to lower costs, I believe the jury is still out.
Fundamentally, I've come to a view that finding ways to help students with their complicated lives is probably what's critically important. The age of our post-secondary students has risen as now community colleges enroll students who didn't go to college right away and are trying to balance many competing demands on their time.
I think that we should be encouraging students to study when they have fewer distractions, for example by going to school when they’re younger or encouraging them to go full time. One of the more successful models for encouraging post-secondary degree completion is the City University of New York’s ASAP (Accelerated Study in Associate Programs), which MDRC evaluated. Students were required to enroll full time and get through their developmental education courses more quickly. It has shown phenomenal success; early results from a replication in three community colleges in Ohio are also encouraging.
I suspect the ASAP program is successful because, while there may be short-term sacrifices, which not everybody can make, students get through faster and with a better-quality educational experience.
In your opinion, have employers had sufficient input into how our workforce is trained?
Our labor market is really, really diverse, and different employers have different “needs” from our educational institutions. While all employers look for our educational institutions to improve the critical thinking skills of their students, most of the effort attempting to link employers with our education system has been in vocational fields, where there are also other, specific skills for a particular job. Over the years—over decades—there have been attempts to better involve employers in vocational classroom instruction and then placement. It clearly works better in some places, and some industries and occupations, than others. Some of the successful examples come from industries in which the employers can work together to identify critical skills, and sometimes help fund the training. In others, it is when there is a strong partnership between employers and unions such that the union can help organize the training activity or serve as a liaison between the employer and the educational institution. While it does not currently work everywhere, we obviously have to keep trying to make it work better in more places.
There’s another set of employers, however, that mostly seek good critical thinking rather than specific, discrete skills. I teach in a liberal arts institution, and I believe in the liberal arts. I believe that the kind of critical thinking many of these employers seek can be taught through computer science or art history, that the specifics of what students learn in their college major aren't as important as learning to think critically, to write clearly, and to ask lots of questions.
We've talked about two-year and four-year colleges. Do you think the US is doing enough to provide quality apprenticeships?
I think we could probably do more here. We already do what may not be called an apprenticeship, but may be functionally comparable, which is learning on the job. We have minimum wages, and sub-minimum wages, and more flexibility than many other countries for employers to hire somebody who's very young and inexperienced without being required to hold on to that person for the rest of their working lives. Traditionally in the US that was a type of apprenticeship. Young people would change jobs relatively frequently, because they'd be learning on the job.
But the US should invest in more formalized apprenticeships as well. They’ve traditionally been organized through labor unions, and it works well when there are clearly articulated sets of skills that are valuable to many employers, which is not going be true for every sector. More generally, finding ways for people to develop skills that are valuable to employers—that’s essentially what an apprenticeship is—is important.
Thinking back to when you were approached about joining the Partnership, why did you say “yes?”
Who says no to David Ellwood [the chair of the Partnership]? Fundamentally, I knew that David was assembling a group of people who I would enjoy interacting with, from whom I would learn a lot, and who might encourage me to think about things in a new and different way. The idea of being given the time and resources to think big and to think outside the box was quite intriguing because the lack of economic mobility is a very important problem for our economy and for our country.