New report: ‘Higher education has become a $500 billion computer without an operating system’

A college student puts a job plea on his graduation cap. (AJC file.)

As a parent about to dispatch my final two kids to college, I am far more concerned with their majors than when I sent off my oldest child 11 years ago.

In that time, I have learned more as a parent and reporter about the changing job market and seen one too many philosophy and English majors struggle to find meaningful jobs that pay enough to afford a house, a car and an occasional vacation.

Like many parents, I would prefer to let my children study what they find the most compelling, but I also know the job market favors math and science skills. I also know how expensive college is — my older two are still paying off loans.

A new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (Georgetown Center) addresses the disconnect between college and career.

Among the findings: Tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities have grown 19 times faster than family incomes since 1980. While college grads are generally happy with their decision to attend college, the study notes more than half would choose a different major, go to a different college, or pursue a different postsecondary credential.

I have met several college graduates with liberal arts degrees now back in school for nursing or physical therapy. Before they could get into those health programs, they had to shore up their science credentials by enrolling in courses at local colleges.

We still have a divide where college presidents herald the life of the mind and the mandate for universities to produce thinkers and explorers and creatives. Then, we have parents slipping their sociology and theater graduates $100 to pay the light bill and put gas in their clunker.

With that, here is the official release from the Georgetown Center on its report “Career Pathways: Five Ways to Connect College and Careers,” which calls for states to help college students and employers understand the meaning of a degree and its value in the job market.

From Georgetown:

Back when a high school-educated worker could find a good job with decent wages, the question was simply whether or not to go to college. That is no longer the case in today’s economy which requires at least some college to enter the middle class. The study finds that:

•The number of postsecondary programs of study more than quintupled between 1985 and 2010 — from 410 to 2,260;

•The number of colleges and universities more than doubled from 1,850 to 4,720 between 1950 and 2014; and

•The number of occupations grew from 270 in 1950 to 840 in 2010.

•The variety of postsecondary credentials, providers, and online delivery mechanisms has also multiplied rapidly in recent years, underscoring the need for common, measurable outcomes.

College graduates are also showing buyer’s remorse. While they are generally happy with their decision to attend college, more than half would choose a different major, go to a different college, or pursue a different postsecondary credential if they had a chance.

The Georgetown study points out that the lack of information drives the higher education market toward mediocrity. The report argues that postsecondary education and training needs to be more closely aligned to careers to better equip learners and workers with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century economy and close the skills gap.

The stakes couldn’t be higher for students to make the right decisions. Since 1980, tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities have grown 19 times faster than family incomes. Students and families want — and need — to know the value they are getting for their investment.

“Increasing transparency around college and career outcomes for students is absolutely critical; better data is also indispensable to drive improvements on our campuses,” said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

Going to college has become one of the biggest investments people make in their lives. College provides large rewards, with graduates earning over $1 million more over a lifetime than high school graduates, but also involves substantial risk, with a $3.4 million difference in lifetime earnings between the highest and lowest paying majors. Thus, integrating education and workforce data will go a long way in removing the guesswork for individuals navigating the college and career maze.

“Higher education has become a $500 billion computer without an operating system,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center and the report’s lead author. “Learners and workers need a modern guidance system with clear and comprehensive consumer information that will help them make good college and career decisions.”

Such a system will also help employers frustrated by skill shortages to more precisely identify and hire talented workers, colleges to refresh and strengthen their programs to improve student outcomes, and policymakers to better allocate resources to build strong economies.

A number of states have started to leverage integrated education and workforce data by developing publicly available information tools in the following five areas:

•Education Projections, Business Expansion, and Workforce Quality tools to help state economic and workforce leaders attract new employers and retain existing ones with data demonstrating that the state postsecondary education and training systems can provide workers with the needed skills.

•Program Alignment with Labor Market Demand tools to help college administrators, deans, and faculty members make program-related decisions that address labor market needs, while college and system administrators can demonstrate return on investment to state leaders.

•Curriculum Alignment with Workforce Requirements tools to help faculty members create curricula aligned with the applied skills and abilities that learners will need to succeed in their careers.

•Counseling and Career Pathways tools to help advisors support students in their educational and career decisions as well as identify and reach out to the learners who need additional support.

•Job Placement and Skills Gap Analysis tools to help workers determine if and how the knowledge, skills, abilities, interests, and work values they possess are transferable to new jobs. These tools also help workers assess skills gaps and provide connections to postsecondary education and training options that can prepare them for a career change.

Reducing the confusion around college and careers is the way to equip more individuals with the skills they need in the 21st-century economy and offer employers the skilled workforce they require.

Access the full report, Career Pathways: Five Ways to Connect College and Careers, at


Reader Comments 0

Your Teacher
Your Teacher

One underlying issue is that many jobs that will be prevalent in the next 10-20 years don't even exist yet.

Should colleges adjust to the rapid business cycles that happen in our economy? Heck, hardly anyone went to school to be a teacher during the recession because there were no jobs in the field. Now, we're starting to to feel the effects in many states amounting to large teacher shortages. So, sometimes given the logic of that study, it could work against schools to only guide students in the predicted direction of the economy. 



So you believe that "mills" should join unions? You believe that we can throw our borders wide open,dumb down our education system,set an artificial price on labor input and provide a rich package of social benefits while powering our economy with the most expensive energy alternatives ever known and enjoy...A rising standard of living?

Do you really believe this? 

Have your pet unicorn type me up an answer and send it right along.


As a retired Director of a college Career Services department every lament expressed in your article was uttered by me almost daily for 15 years. It is the Career Department that typically sees, up close, the employment outcomes of a college's graduates. The English dept or Biology dept is often woefully short on employment data but very good at remembering a handful of impressive anecdotal stories about their graduates' successes.

At our private, elite (or so the brochure suggested) college, the profs believed their only obligation was to educate with no regard as to whether there would be an employment payoff. Round and round I would go with these professors and for 15 years of my association with this college they held steadfast.

The burden for getting to the truth of employment opportunities as it relates to attendance at college and the choice of majors should fall to the parent. 

Just remember that salary data, if gathered by self-reporting, is unreliable as only those who have something positive to report tend to bother with surveys designed to illuminate the cold hard facts. In the absence of compelling job/employment data many colleges brag about grad school statistics Be impressed Only If those going to grad school didn't do so because they knew they had to invest another 2 or 3 years getting an advanced degree in order to finally become employable. 


My daughter just graduated from Ga Tech with CS degree.  She already has a job lined up making what I was in my 40s before I was at that salary level.  She worked hard for it and fortunately her mother and I were able to get her through with no debt.  While I'm very proud of her and her accomplishments, I know it isn't for all.  There are good jobs available in the trades that are going unfilled.  If you are willing to work, you can very easily have an upper middle class income.  Check out the Mike Rowe Works Foundation.



"She worked hard for it and fortunately her mother and I were able to get her through with no debt."

Way.To. Go! Congrats. I'm pulling for her success.She's earned a shot at it.

MaureenDowney moderator

Several of the majors cited here including women's studies are often the springboard to law school. I was talking to a professor about this issue, and he noted that many derided majors often lead students to graduate school or professional school. My children's friends, all recent high school grads bound for college, plan to attend graduate school. It is a common sentiment: "I am using HOPE for UGA or Tech so I can save money for graduate school."

That seems a change from when I graduated college. While I went right from undergrad to graduate school, the majority of my friends got jobs. They did end up going to graduate school, but often several years later. 



Actually, that correlates with what we have been saying about the economic worth of some of these degree programs.   That is, you need something else if you want to eat.


@Lee_CPA2 @MaureenDowney

"Several of the majors cited here including women's studies are often the springboard to law school."

These students can help address our nation's critical,well documented  lawyer shortage.


In my experience in the college classroom, what most students desperately need are better communication and thinking skills. One thing I used to have them do is find a job for which they almost had the skills and experience. Then they were to create a cover letter and resume that might prompt the prospective employer to grant them an interview. It was an exercise in creative self-promotion.

Some produced cartoonishly unbelievable letters and resumes, which were fun to read but of no real value.  It would be a very simple matter to test their assertion that they had been granted sixteen patents by the age of ten.  

Others who took the assignment more seriously struggled to see how they might use their time as a cashier or lifeguard, for example, to suggest that they had gained valuable experience transcending those job descriptions. They had to be shown, step by step, what they could make of their experience.

Others selected a job they were already doing. They simply couldn't conceive of how they might convince an employer that they were qualified to do anything other than what they were already doing.

A liberal arts education is designed to broaden students' perspectives on themselves and the world around them. There is real value in that, especially when employers aren't knocking down their doors with job offers. If you have children heading off to college, emphasize the importance of being able to communicate effectively. It can be learned.


Oh good grief, the job and salary info is out there.  Spend an hour on the internet and you can build a very good reference base as to the degree programs and their economic worth.

I didn't pay to send my children to college so that they could "find themselves" or learn "creative thinking skills" - whatever the hell that means.  I sent them to college to obtain a degree that would lead to a career that would provide them with financial security.

The fact is that in GA, you can obtain a degree without incurring mountains of debt.  Go to a local community college for the first two years while you satisfy the core curriculum requirements.  Transfer to one of the four year regional institutions for the final two years.   Live at home instead of expensive college housing.  Check into co-op and intern programs.  Even in this day of budget cuts, many companies offer tuition reimbursement as a benefit.  Get a full time job with one of these companies and attend school part time. 

Colleges really need to rethink their curriculum requirements.  Forcing an accounting major to sit through a year of World Lit, History and Sociology is a waste of time.  Colleges could completely eliminate one full year out of the curriculum and nobody would notice it - except for all the Humanities PHDs who would be out of a job.

Bottom line, as an employer, I don't care if you went to UGA, GA Southern, or North Ga College.  The college degree is only a filter.  We'll teach you what you need to know.

Colleges have enjoyed a surplus of students due to lax financing and the "everybody must go to college" mentality.   Look for that to change in the next few years.

MaureenDowney moderator

@Lee_CPA2 While the college may not matter to you as an employer, it seems to matter to many, given the salary boost that comes from graduating a prestige school. What these schools share is high selectivity in admissions. Many are STEM oriented, but a lot are highly revered liberal arts schools.

The 25 Top Earning Colleges

  1. Harvey Mudd College
  2. United States Naval Academy
  3. Harvard University
  4. California Institute of Technology
  5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  6. Stanford University
  7. Duke University
  8. Princeton University
  9. United States Military Academy
  10. University of Pennsylvania
  11. Washington and Lee University
  12. Carnegie Mellon University
  13. Georgetown University
  14. United States Air Force Academy
  15. Tufts University
  16. Colgate University
  17. Swarthmore College
  18. Rice University
  19. Cooper Union
  20. Cornell University
  21. University of California, Berkeley
  22. Brown University
  23. Santa Clara University
  24. Washington University in St. Louis
  25. Georgia Institute of Technology 


@Lee_CPA2 I don't agree.  College is about ways of thinking and approaching problems.  If, for example, you are an accountant (the people most satisfied with their degrees in Astro's article below), you will spend the last 3 years of college almost entirely in the College of Business and your career with other business people.  Exposure to different types of students and ways of thinking are important and stimulating.  And from a practical standpoint, most students change their major at least once.  Perhaps the Liberal Arts Colleges should require their students to take some business courses.


@Lee_CPA2 On that point, this is a link to the UGA core curriculum-English, Math, Science, Social Sciences and Humanities.  Doesn't appear to be any specific requirement for economics and there is none for any business courses. 

English and math courses common throughout the University System.9 hoursArea IISCIENCES
Physical Sciences (3-4 hours); Life Sciences (3-4 hours)7-8 hoursArea IIIQUANTITATIVE REASONING3-4 hoursArea IVWORLD LANGUAGES, CULTURE, HUMANITIES AND THE ARTS
World Languages and Culture (9 hours); Humanities and the Arts (3 hours)12 hoursArea VSOCIAL SCIENCES9 hoursArea VICOURSES RELATED TO THE PROGRAM OF STUDY18 hours


@MaureenDowney @Lee_CPA2

Basically, what you are saying is that the top 10% of high school graduates are going to out earn their classmates.  Also, the Finance major who goes to work on Wall Street is going to out earn the Finance major who goes to work in Bainbridge GA.

Who woulda guessed?


@bu22 @Lee_CPA2

We're just going to have to disagree on this one.  Looking at KSU undergraduate catalog, the accounting major has 42 hours in "General Education" classes - including such hits as "Love & Sex".  Yep, real relevant to that business degree.  I counted at least 18-24 hours out of 42 that were irrelevant

Basically, colleges are getting full tuition for these core classes and staff them with part time instructors.  Cha-ching $$$. 


My cousin has a daughter that has a Ph.D. in African American studies. She teaches 1st grade at a local public school. She spent over $150k on her education to make $35k per year. I question what she would make if she studied computer science.

Mr. Math Expert
Mr. Math Expert

@Tcope What can you do with a Ph.D. in African American studies? I can do that for free by going to the library and reading all books as possible about black people for a year and come away with enough depth of knowledge as she. Yet, I wouldn't know what to do with it.


@Mr. Math Expert @Tcope

" What can you do with a Ph.D. in African American studies?"

The hard truth is-Not much.The fact is, a lot of these degrees have no real world value because they don't train their possessors to create any real value in the marketplace.They are what I call "value subtracted" jobs because they burden young adults with debt and divert them from something productive.The psychological toll on their recipients is incalculable,as they only slowly realize that they have wasted a lot of effort and borrowed money to accomplish something that is not worth accomplishing.They are to a large degree as dead- end as working in fast food. 


Personal responsibility vs. Higher Ed institution accountability: Colleges could be held accountable to tell their enrollees about both salary and job availability statistics - even to the point of a mandatory disclosure form. Then if someone still wants a degree in underwater basket weaving, they're free to go ahead.

Colleges should also have to disclose job placement statistics. They need to have some responsibility to place graduates...and if they're turning out 1000 basketweavers into a job market with 5 job openings, it would be readily apparent they're not doing their job and should be required to severely limit course availability to meet job supply and demand.



I'm in general agreement with you on a lot of what you posit,but about this...

"Colleges could be held accountable to tell their enrollees about both salary and job availability statistics - even to the point of a mandatory disclosure form. Then if someone still wants a degree in underwater basket weaving, they're free to go ahead.'

Isn't that info already available? Doesn't the Commerce Department periodically (yearly,I think),publish a "Jobs Outlook" for just about every recognized profession,along with demand? 

And isn't it very broadly known that,while a degree in arts is a wonderful thing,it can lead to a lifetime of underemployment unless the student is lucky or scary-good at their craft?

Not trying to dis you here,because you bring up some excellent ideas,but when does the responsibility shift from the institution to the student and their family?


All of this very practical, but sometimes life happens outside the box. Several decades ago, my daughter graduated with a degree in Women's Studies/ Cultural Studies. Even then, that seemed pretty impractical. But she went to Europe (we did pay for her plane fare, but nothing else), and then spent the next few years living in Europe and teaching English in a language school to the locals, then off to Buenos Aires to steep herself in Spanish and teach English...Then back to the US where she got an MS in Applied Linguistics and taught ESL at the University level...mainly taken because of her first-hand experience w/internationals. 

My point: don't confine your expectations.


You can't tell your child to "follow his dreams" for 18 years and all the suddenly throw a cost analysis at his feet and say, pick one of these.

My daughter went to a seminar for women in computer science.  In a breakout session the organizer wanted to know why these woman had selected computer science.  The first thought that went through my daughter's mind was: There weren't going to be any art majors in her mama's  house.  Harsh but true.  I supported her artistic activities as an extracurricular  but never as a career path.


@gapeach101  Have a friend who has a daughter who has a Ph.D. in women's studies from a top tiered university.  After several years, still no job and lives at home.

Mr. Math Expert
Mr. Math Expert

@Jimbo @gapeach101 What can you do with a Ph.D. in Women's Studies? I can do that for free by going to the library and reading all books as possible about women for a year and come away with enough depth of knowledge as she. Yet, I wouldn't know what to do with it.


@Mr. Math Expert @Jimbo @gapeach101

I would throw a "women's studies" degree holder's CV in the round file unread.It would tell me that they would be a "problematic" hire.Why beg for the eventual lawsuit for some perceived slight?