What Should You Study in College? Let's Connect the Dots.

By 2020, 65 percent of job openings will require at least some postsecondary education. But not all higher education is created equal: The costs, risks, and returns to education and training varies from program to program. For today's high school graduates and a growing population of middle-age adults, deciding whether to go to college, where to go, and what to study will have enormous consequences, both their future career prospects and ability to live fully in their time. 
 
As things now stand, however, they are making those decisions in an information vacuum. The American education and training system is a patchwork quilt of institutions with different missions and populations -- and education policies vary from state to state. Most importantly, there is no unified information system that connects education and training programs to actual labor market demands. Institutions' decisions about which programs to offer and program curricula are disconnected from the needs of a 21st century economy.
 
Since the Great Recession left millions of Americans unemployed, the benefits of a college education have come under more scrutiny. In our own research at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, we've found that what you study in college matters more than ever. College graduates who study petroleum engineering earn $130,000 each year, while those who studied counseling psychology earn $35,000. Over a career, these differences amount to more than $3.3 million. 
 
With differences this large, we cannot continue allowing students and their families making decisions without a complete understanding of their likely costs and benefits. 
 
The good news is that all the information we need to create a "learning-labor exchange" already exists, and the costs of integrating them are relatively low  -- we just need to connect the dots. Building a learning labor exchange will help students understand how their training fits into the real-world job market and motivate institutions to be more accountable for shaping their programs to fit their students' needs. 
 
The learning-labor exchange would rely on two information feedstocks: state unemployment insurance records and transcript records from colleges. At the federal level, Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) proposed doing exactly this their bill, the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act. Many states have built State Longitudinal Data Systems (SLDS) that function similarly. 
 
After creating the learning-labor exchange, the next step is to ensure that high-quality information gets into the hands of those it would benefit. Public and private developers have used this information to develop user-friendly web tools that allow users to see what they will likely earn upon graduating and after several years of work experience after completing a program. California, for example, has created a "Salary Surfer" web tool that allows students and career counselors to determine their probability of finding a job in a particular career field in addition to salary information. 
 
Forging better connections between the college and careers will not only serve the needs of employers but will also hold colleges more accountable for providing degrees of value to their students. 
 
On November 19, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation will explore employer-driven solutions to better connect the business community with the education community at its national conference, "Talent Pipeline Management: A New Approach to Closing the Skills Gap." Register here.
 
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
 
Anthony P. Carnevale is Director and Research Professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Andrew R. Hanson is a research analyst at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.