02/17/2014 09:07 am ET Updated Apr 19, 2014

Show Me the Money: Higher Education and the Workforce

Writing for the Associated Press, Hope Yen reported recently that the earnings gap between young adults with and without bachelor's degrees has stretched to its widest level in nearly half a century. She suggested that it is a sign of the growing value of a college education despite rising tuition costs.

Citing Pew Research Center data, Ms. Yen noted that Pew found that even among the two thirds of young adults who borrowed money for college, about 86 percent said the degrees had been, or will be, worth it.

Pew researchers acknowledged that the field of study in college does seem to matter. Those with STEM degrees were most likely to say that their current job is "very closely" related to the college or graduate field of study - roughly 60 percent - compared to 43 percent for both liberal arts and business majors.

The release of the Pew Study coincided with a corresponding release of a new film about Allied efforts to reclaim and return stolen art treasures at the end of World War II. My son put it most succinctly: "You've heard of it, Dad. That's the one based on the true story where art history majors save Western culture from the Nazis."

The juxtaposition of the two releases is interesting because it demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses in perceptions Americans have on the value of a college degree. Despite all of the heated rhetoric of late, the majority of Americans do not hold college degrees despite the shifting expectations shaping global workforces in the future.

The Obama administration has weighed in to present education as an opportunity through which to realize the American dream. Yet, in a decentralized higher education system that mixes public and private education in nonprofit and for-profit settings, how can we develop a coherent, sustainable policy?

Good policy begins with the recognition that we must get the fundamentals right, beginning with basic education. America settled on a path of universal access to basic education, with the first stirrings occurring almost two centuries ago. Its leaders recognized that America was transforming itself into a more complex country shifting away from an agrarian economy toward a mix of farming, manufacturing and commerce.

As the concept of universal education evolved, its supporters argued that America should prepare its youth to be good citizens accustomed to new industrial work rhythms.

The strategy worked, more or less, and accommodated the new industrial age, massive waves of immigrants, and a move toward greater equality for women and minorities over time. It wasn't quick, easy, and without jarring and sometimes debilitating obstacles. As a manufacturing base eroded, however, employment patterns, new types of employment, and technology shifted. The creaking educational bureaucracy - including basic and higher education - reacted slowly. The result is, in part, the crisis and uncertainty that we face today.

What, then, are the new realities?

First, we must recognize and support the majority of Americans in the workforce who do not hold and will not attain a college degree, at least in the near-term historically. There are good jobs out there for these Americans. The quality of basic education must improve and higher education must provide training, certificates and degrees to raise the level of the American employee competitively in the global economy. There's room for all types of education but it must start with the fundamentals.

Second, American employers must be more clear about what skills they seek and will need. Employers value the ability to articulate, write, apply quantitative methods, use technology, and work in collaborative settings as the foundational prerequisites for employment. As such, they must become the most vocal supporters of a liberal arts education which does these things for them.

Pure and simple - it's what liberal arts graduates bring to the table. And, it's the value added that makes STEM graduates exposed to a liberal arts education outstanding employees.

Let's agree, then, to call off the dogs with inane, anecdotal reports of liberal arts majors characterized as a class of unemployable, itinerant day laborers. In fact, they disproportionately run the American economy, whatever its current strengths and weaknesses.

Third, let's support engineering, math and science majors. While they build the new technologies that support the increasingly robust economies of "eds and meds" cities like Pittsburgh, Boston, Washington, Austin and San Francisco, STEM graduates are critical to rekindling and nurturing American manufacturing. The United States cannot protect its economic interests without a strong manufacturing sector. We must continue to be a country that builds things.

In the end, it's not just about the money you can make based on a good education. It never was. Maybe that's part of what makes America great.

Once, not so very long ago, art history majors saved a critical part of global culture from the Nazis. Sometimes, actions speak louder than words and help us better understand where good education policy should head.