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Higher ed is changing. Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer and Chronicle veteran, connects you with the people, trends, and ideas that are reshaping it. Delivered on Wednesdays.

From: Goldie Blumenstyk

Subject: By 2020, They Said, 2 Out of 3 Jobs Would Need More Than a High-School Diploma. Were They Right?

I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Did that prediction about jobs requiring education beyond high school by 2020 pan out?

“By the year 2020, nearly two-thirds of all jobs will require postsecondary education and training.” Anyone who’s been to a higher-ed conference or read a book on the topic in the past decade has no doubt heard some version of that prediction — some of us to the point of numbness.

Along with the aspirations for raising college-completion rates, which my colleague Eric Kelderman wrote about this month, the jobs prediction became a major rallying cry for more support of postsecondary education — and also for more alternatives to traditional college models.

Well, it’s 2020, so who better to ask about the prediction than the folks at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, which offered it in 2013 (following a similar prediction three years earlier, keyed to 2018)? Was it true? And if so, at what point did we pass the threshold?

Those seem like simple questions. The answers, alas, are anything but.

Still, let’s start with the basics. Seven years ago, the center predicted that, by 2020, 63 percent of all jobs would need some education beyond high school. According to the latest available data, 70 percent of workers were in such jobs as of 2018. In 2010, that proportion was 59 percent.

“People have become more educated than we predicted,” Nicole Smith, the center’s chief economist, told me.

To my disappointment, Smith said it’s impossible to chart this rise exactly over time (some of that is because the data sets themselves aren’t easily compared). But she noted that during the Great Recession, “it became an employers’ market,” and that created demand for more workers with more than a high-school diploma.

Now for the fuzzy parts. When the center talks about the education levels “required” for jobs, it determines that not by the actual skills that might be required but whether employers are paying premium wages to people with that level of education. In other words, the center considers a position a bachelor’s-level job if most of the people with that job have a bachelor’s degree and they get paid more than those who don’t have the degree.

Also, as Smith reminded me, even the broad trends can be misleading. They can obscure circumstances in which subsets of the population — often women or members of minority groups — don’t get the same “wage premium” in their salaries as do white men with the same levels of education, particularly those who have some postsecondary education but no degree. Sometimes that’s because not all certificates are equal. In other cases, racism and sexism come into play.

So even though education levels in today’s work force are higher than what the center predicted they would be, that doesn’t mean the benefits of that education are paying off in kind to everyone.

Where’s all this headed? How high can this demand go? Have we hit “peak college” (or perhaps more accurately, “peak education beyond high school”) in the work force? Apparently, we might not go much higher. In about two months, the Georgetown center will release its next set of predictions, again looking seven years into the future. Smith offered me a glimpse at what’s to come.

For 2027, the center will predict 70 percent of all jobs will require some education beyond high school, with 30 percent of jobs still available to those without it. “We still have certain kinds of jobs that aren’t going away in the ‘high-school’ economy,” Smith said. The center’s predictions for bachelor’s- and master’s-level jobs, representing 25 percent and 15 percent of the work force in 2018, respectively, remain the same for 2027.

The big changes by 2027 are predicted to come in two other categories: fewer jobs for people with some college and no degree (down from 21 percent of the work force in 2018 to 17 percent) and more jobs for those with associate degrees (up from 10 percent in 2018 to 13 percent). The factor with the biggest impact: automation. It’s “changing the tasks in occupations,” Smith said.

Yet as with all predictions, take these with a grain of salt. Just as the last recession threw off some of the expected trends, it’s hard to know what the next one will do.

Gates Foundation doubles down on the establishment.

Not so long ago, a hallmark of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s grant making in higher education was supporting new organizations and even new companies, many of them in the ed-tech arena. So I found it striking that with its latest announcement, of $20 million in grants over two years, the beneficiaries of the foundation’s new Intermediaries for Scale project are a dozen existing organizations, including stalwarts like the accrediting body for the Northwest region of the country and two traditional college-membership groups.

To me, it seemed like a shift in strategy and perhaps even an acknowledgment that the prior approach — more focused on pushing out new tools and strategies — hadn’t worked. Travis Reindl, a senior communications officer for the foundation, offered a different spin. The approach is less about “product development” than it used to be, he allowed. Then again, he added, the same is true for the projects the foundation champions — efforts like improving developmental education and student advising.

Still, he said, it’s an acknowledgment that even the best new product can go only so far. “If you put it into a culture that doesn’t know how to use it effectively or doesn’t want to use it,” said Reindl, “all the stuff in the world won’t make a difference.”

To be fair, whatever shift I might be seeing in the Intermediaries grants isn’t brand-new. The foundation’s support for projects like Completion by Design and the Frontier Set also reflect that approach. Reindl called it a recognition by the foundation that “for higher ed to really evolve, you have to work with the players on the field now.” (The foundation is also funding a yearlong project at The Chronicle to examine the role that higher education plays in social mobility.)

Also worth noting: One of those intermediaries on the ground, Complete College America, is a relative newcomer to the scene. It got its start in 2009, thanks to an initial grant from the Gates foundation.

Meet-Up in D.C. at AAC&U this week.

Will you be at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges & Universities? Please join me, along with my colleagues Beth McMurtrie and Beckie Supiano, from The Chronicle’s Teaching newsletter, for a happy-hour meet-up on Thursday, January 23, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. We’ll be in the lobby bar of the conference hotel, the Marriott Marquis. We look forward to schmoozing with you — and hearing your ideas and feedback for our newsletters, The Edge and Teaching. Not going but know people who will be? Please let them know.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, or sign up to receive your own copy, you can do so here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

The veteran reporter Goldie Blumenstyk writes a weekly newsletter, The Edge, about the people, ideas, and trends changing higher education. Find her on Twitter @GoldieStandard. She is also the author of the bestselling book American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know.