College Guide


January 05, 2010 1:50 PM American Colleges Not Responsive to Labor Needs

By Daniel Luzer

In other news from the annual meeting of the American Economic Association, apparently, despite extensive rhetoric about education and the workforce, American colleges don’t do a terribly good job preparing students for employment. According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

American colleges are only “moderately responsive” to changes in the labor markets, according to a new working paper by three economists.
The study, whose preliminary results were presented on Monday at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association, found that some academic programs, such as computer science, appear to be highly responsive to labor-market trends, while others, like medicine and dentistry, are largely unaffected by changes in employment opportunities.

More specifically, when an industry needs more workers, students do earn relevant degrees. But there is a huge lag, sometimes as long as seven years between the time when the industry first needs more workers and when the credentialed workers appear. As a result, according to the article, “employers look elsewhere to fill jobs, such as hiring skilled workers from abroad.”

According to the paper presented at the meeting:

Policy measures may include a central corpus of funds for creating slots in specific specializations in institutions of higher learning; or special subsidies for more responsive institutions. If the US wants to continue to foster specific occupations in the domestic marketplace, one solution is to lower barriers to the creation of new specialty schools, or to create additional incentives for existing institutions to increase enrollment.

In short, if America needs new workers, it makes sense to create an easy way for American universities to produce those workers, quickly. The market doesn’t operate fast enough to meet the country’s economic needs.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Neil G. on January 05, 2010 9:34 PM:

    Not really surprising. I graduated from college 34 years ago as did many of my co-workers. We have discussed this many times. You're talking more about "vocational" skills vs. a "liberal" education that makes for well rounded, critical thinking, curious person. Can we have both?

  • Louis on January 06, 2010 10:27 AM:

    I think Neil G.'s idea is a great one. I've recently gotten a GIS certification to go along with my liberal arts background. I think that just as we have minors in college, we should also have the ability to get technical certifications in concert with our majors. I think the Community Colleges might be ahead of the curve on this.