The data problem that perpetuates America's ongoing college-value debate

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The March jobs report adds to a pile of conclusive evidence that most of the jobs being created in today's economy require an education beyond high school. Jobs that demand a post-high school credential have been leading the recovery, with 9 million college jobs added since 2007. Meanwhile, 6.3 million jobs for high-school-educated workers are gone, and they're not coming back.

Despite this, there's still widespread debate in the U.S. about whether going to college is "worth it " - and frequent portrayal of a nation that's over-saturated with college-degree holders who've struggled to find work in the recession. Which begs us to ask, why does the back-and-forth continue, even with an abundance of evidence to the contrary?

The answer, or at least part of it, boils down to a misinterpretation of data - specifically a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Separate from its monthly jobs report, this BLS report shows which occupations are projected to grow over a 10-year period, the typical entry-level education levels required for those occupations, and how demand for various credentials - high school diplomas, associate degrees, bachelor's degrees, and so on-will shift with the occupational outlook.

One look at the numbers in this report makes clear why we still might be questioning the value of college. The most recent 2014 data, for instance, show that only 34 percent of jobs require any postsecondary education. But these data don't provide an accurate picture of educational demand, nor are they intended to be used in that way. Comparing BLS' data to another government data source - the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey - 59 percent of jobs require at least some postsecondary education.

The distinction among these data sources lies in how the BLS calculates education demand. The agency takes the typical entry-level requirements for a given field and applies it across the board to all jobs within that field. To understand why that skews the picture, consider the sales sector, which employs a wide range of workers with an equally sweeping range of education attainment.

More than 800,000 sales workers have at least a bachelor's degree, while 340,000 have high school diplomas or less. The single occupational category includes workers selling clothing in retail stores with very little training required, as well as workers selling sophisticated technological equipment that might require detailed understanding of electronics and mechanics.

Yet the BLS, for its purposes, doesn't distinguish between these workers. It simply lists the minimum qualifications for sales as having a high school diploma. Given that, it would be easy to conclude that the 800,000 sales workers with at least a bachelor's degree are "overqualified' and not using their college skills.

But wages in the marketplace tell a different story about education demand. The sales workers with four-year college degrees or better have wages of $73,000 a year, compared to the $43,000 earned by high-school educated sales workers. In other words, the BLS' definition of requirements for a job, and what the market rewards, are two very different things.

What's more, in forecasting what education levels will be demanded in the future, the BLS applies today's typical entry-level requirement to the number of projected jobs in a given industry a decade from now. The agency doesn't take into account changes in technology, skills or other factors that often alter job requirements over time.

The flaw, therefore, is not so much in the data, but in how these data are interpreted. The BLS' data are meant to serve as a counseling tool and guide new graduates into fast-growing jobs. They aren't meant to measure education demand or whether people are in jobs appropriate for their skills. Yet too often, they're used precisely that way - which leaves leaders misinformed about how very critical it is that they work to build a case for setting goals to increase higher education attainment in America.

Data designed to forecast education demand show the integral role increasing higher education attainment plays in individuals' and the nation's success. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, for example, has calculated that by 2020, more than 65 percent of all jobs will require some form of postsecondary education. With current graduation rates, we will be 19.8 million credentials short of the number that are needed in a decade. And a report to be released by Lumina Foundation later this month shows that even with progress in higher education attainment, looming gaps remain in the percentage of Americans with education beyond high school.

Without action to address the gap, our nation will fall woefully behind in supplying the critical human capital to fuel our current and future economy. That's why we need to shift the debate from college's value to how to get more people to and through college in a way that meets their needs, prepares them for the workforce and doesn't leave them saddled with debt.

But to change the conversation, we first have to change the way we look at data. If we don't, we could find ourselves a decade from now having the same conversation, as our nation's economy sputters without the talent it needs to thrive.

Jamie Merisotis is president & CEO of Lumina Foundation and author of "America Needs Talent: Attracting, Educating & Deploying the 21st Century Workforce."

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