A Conversation on Equity and Access: Q&A with the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW)

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) is an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute affiliated with the Georgetown McCourt School of Public Policy that studies the link between education, career qualifications, and workforce demands.

CEW recently published a new book, The Merit Myth, that explores barriers to higher education and provides recommendations for making college admissions more equitable. As part of The Corps Network’s Moving Forward Initiative, we spoke with Anthony P. Carnevale, CEW Director and Research Professor, to discuss equity issues in education and jobs, particularly as our country experiences economic and social changes due to COVID-19.


The COVID-19 Era
Looking Forward



Question 1

In a June 3 email responding to recent events, CEW stated that it “stand[s] united with the Black community” and would “continue to expose the deep flaws in our society that resulted from systemic racism and the reproduction of white racial privilege.” This statement addresses current times, but it also speaks to the work CEW has been doing for years. You have a history of researching racial inequities.
  • Tell us about why, from the beginning, you looked to focus on this. Why is studying racial inequity important to understanding our education and workforce systems and why have you chosen not to be silent?

Education and workforce systems that are not just are failed systems, and in the United States, we hold the value of equality of opportunity in high regard. Everyone may not be equal, but in America, “everyone gets to be all they can be,” or so the story goes. This is the narrative we present to the world. So, if we are not living up to those ideals, and in some ways have systems that do the exact opposite, American people need to know, and they need to hold their leaders in government, education, and business arenas accountable.

We also feel that we must highlight discrepancies in access to education by race, because those discrepancies are inevitably reflected in the workforce. If we don’t address educational reform at the root, we will never see equal access to opportunity in this country. And that will mean we cannot resolve other persistent issues, such as wage and job discrimination.


The COVID-19 Era

Question 2

The majority of young people enrolled in Service and Conservation Corps are between ages 16 – 25. In your May 29 blog post, Education, Race, and Jobs in the COVID-19 Crisis, you reference that 58 percent of young adults ages 18 to 24 have experienced a loss of employment income since mid-March. You go on to state that young people and other vulnerable workers will need “substantial help” and “suitable education and training” in order to recover from this crisis.
  • First: Can you explain why young people are experiencing this loss of income?
  • Second: Corps work to provide young people education, training, and various wrapround supports. What would you share with our Corps in terms of action steps needed during these times to keep young people on track?

Young people in general tend to face higher increases in unemployment during recessions. For example, during the Great Recession the overall unemployment rate peaked at just under 10 percent, but youth unemployment, for young adults ages 15-24 peaked at over 18 percent.

Young people tend to have less work experience, less job-specific human capital, less developed professional networks, and less refined job search skills. All of which makes young people more vulnerable to economic downturns. In addition, many companies practice “last in first out” policies that increase the chances that young people with less job tenure will be laid off during recessions.

During this particular economic downturn many young workers also suffered loss of employment income because they were employed in the hard-hit leisure and hospitality industry, which covers establishments such as hotels and restaurants that have suffered from closures and restrictions across the states. A quarter of young workers (16-24) were employed in the leisure and hospitality industry prior to the pandemic compared to less than 8 percent of prime-age workers (25-54).

As far as action by the Corps, young people need more support than ever. This is the time to pull out all the stops. We already had one “lost generation” of young people who were unlucky enough to enter the workforce around the time of the Great Recession and had the great misfortune of being worse off than their parents. If we add another generation to that, who may be in even deeper trouble given the severity of the current economic crisis, it will set a pattern of decline that our country will not easily climb out of.

Even in the best of times, young people need counseling to help them pick education and career pathways in growing, in-demand fields. They need education, training, and work experience in those fields, so they can acquire skills that will set them out on promising career pathways and let them secure good jobs of the future, in areas such as science and technology, healthcare, management, financial and business operations, and installation and maintenance of new renewable energy and telecommunications technologies, among others.

In times like these, young people need activities and training that lead to building both hard skills and soft skills. Working together with teams, communicating about projects and strategy, and being given leadership positions are critical for young people, in building their confidence, experience, and in leading them to understand how they want to conduct their lives.



Question 3

COVID-19 has forced schools and training programs to move instruction online. Can you discuss what this transition to virtual learning might mean for student outcomes?

What impact the move to online instruction will have remains to be seen. This is the first time in history that such massive numbers of students received online only instruction. Traditionally online only courses have faced challenges with retention and engagement. Yet some institutions, such as Western Governors University, for example, have been able to find success with online only courses. It will be interesting to see what outcomes will result from the current move to online across different schools, and whether colleges that see success with online instruction will continue expanding in that direction in the post-pandemic environment.

Across all types of colleges, from trade schools to four-year institutions, the greatest enrollment growth in the last decade has been in online programs. Online classes are not the best model for learning for every student, but they do work for a lot of them because they are more flexible, more convenient, and generally less expensive than face-to-face classes. Online education is not going to go away. I would expect that as technology advances, clever educators will design online learning that is more engaging and more acceptable to a wider group of students.



Access more resources at cew.georgetown.edu


Question 4

In the book “The Merit Myth,” you explore how U.S. colleges reinforce intergenerational racial and class privileges, then magnify and project these inequities into the labor market. The intergenerational element is so key in helping people understand how racial inequity has been maintained. Can you talk a little bit about this?

Those who are privileged in society pass their advantages to their children and grandchildren in countless ways. While the attention of the public is often on inheritance of large fortunes by a few rich kids, that is only the tip of the iceberg.

Early childhood is very important in determining the odds of an individual’s success. This is the time when in some privileged families, which are overwhelmingly white, parents spare no expense on educational opportunities for their children. Meanwhile, in many disadvantaged families, which are disproportionately Black and Latino, children don’t have as many educational opportunities, and they may face other hurdles, such as growing up with a single parent or in a household with constant conflict between parents, or parents plagued by health or mental health problems, and/or being in a noisy and unsafe neighborhood. That formative experience may impact them their entire life.

When it’s time to go to school, those from privileged families either send their children to private schools or great public schools financed by property tax dollars of those who can afford to live in neighborhoods with high property values. Meanwhile, the children from disadvantaged families, attend poorly resourced public schools that cannot offer them the level of support they need and where they may face violence or bullying that will interfere with their studies.

Throughout their childhood the privileged parents teach their children values, mindsets, and behaviors that will allow them to succeed and build social networks with other privileged people. The disadvantaged parents have not been exposed to these behaviors or habits themselves and so have no way of teaching them to their children. When they get older, the children of the privileged learn about finances: how to properly handle money. The children from disadvantaged households have no one to learn a successful approach to finances from, since the schools generally don’t teach that, and the money habits and strategies they pick up from their parents are likely less than ideal.

When it’s time to go to college, the children from privileged families typically go to selective colleges, often after scoring high on standardized tests, following top-notch prep courses that their parents paid for. The disadvantaged families can’t afford such prep courses, and their children end up at under-resourced community colleges, open-access universities, or for-profit schools, if they go to college at all. They want to get a bachelor’s degree or higher and be successful, but many do not get the support and guidance they need and end up flailing around with no clear direction, no degree, and in many cases student loan debt, which for some is all they have to show for their misadventure with postsecondary education. The students from privileged families who attend selective universities, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly likely to graduate, and secure a good entry-level job through their families’ extensive social and professional networks.

The children from privileged families will often marry children from other privileged families, and the children from disadvantaged families will marry children from other disadvantaged families. And the cycle repeats all over again. Where is any semblance of equal opportunity in any of that?



Question 5

To advance equity in higher education, and help more people access the benefits that come with a good education, you recommend a “Framework for System-Wide Change.” This includes several steps schools can take, such as doing away with legacy admissions, ending overreliance on SAT or ACT scores, and welcoming more Pell Grant recipients.
  • Can you talk about what incentives there are for colleges to implement these changes? What would cause change to happen?
  • How realistic is it that we could actually see some of these changes soon? Will some changes come sooner than others?

The most blunt driver of change would be government policy. The federal government could change requirements for funding, or requirements to maintain nonprofit status, or potentially even create free college. Some of the changes we would like to see will probably come that way, but not all of the change we seek. Colleges are at an inflection point in their histories. Many of them were in financial trouble even before the pandemic, and the public health crisis has exposed many issues that lay just beneath the surface. Colleges and universities have occupied their exalted position in our society largely due to public trust, and that trust has been eroding in recent years. Tuition and fees have been growing at sky-high rates. Admissions scandals and lawsuits about colleges’ and universities’ admissions practices have not helped. The leading colleges understand that if they want to remain highly respected institutions, with influence in our society, they will have to evolve. And we think they will realize they need to serve the people, their students, better than they have.

Some of these changes are already starting to take place. Many colleges and universities have dropped their standardized test requirements for fall of 2021 and some are going test-optional for longer or even indefinitely. John Hopkins, one of the most prestigious universities in the country, has ended the use of legacy preferences in its admissions practices. A number of prestigious colleges have also moved to accept more Pell Grant recipients in recent years. So, these changes are starting to happen at the margins, even though it will take time for them to be reflected more broadly across the higher education system.



Question 6

Your research demonstrates many inequities in education. Black and Latino young people – and particularly those from low-income families – are less likely to enroll in college and graduate from college than white peers. The data is discouraging. You offer recommendations for changes that educational institutions can implement, but what can we say to our young Black and Latino Corpsmembers who may see this data and feel angry or demoralized?

Our education system is unquestionably inequitable to Black and Latino students. But inequality is not destiny. Black and Latino students can still succeed. They should do everything they can to even out the odds in their favor: find and join support groups with students who face similar challenges, utilize all available student support services available at their institutions, pick the most promising majors and programs of study based on data available from sources such as the CEW website and the College Scorecard, reach out to alumni and professionals in their chosen field to ask for mentorship and guidance. They should never allow others’ narratives to define them or their potential. The evidence we study is an indictment of our education system, but it is not a limitation on what young people are capable of achieving.



Access more resources at cew.georgetown.edu


Question 7

In your article, “Career ready’ out of high school? Why the nation needs to let go of that myth,” you detail how – though college is not for everyone – our K-12 education system continues to fail students who are on a career and technical education path. Students with a high school education are not landing good jobs after graduation in comparison to those who have college degrees and certifications.
  • Can you briefly discuss why career and technical education is so weak at many schools?
  • Some Corps help students complete their high school education and simultaneously gain hands-on job experience and earn career certifications. This model works for many students. Why don’t we see this more in the standard K-12 system?

High schools in the United States used to spend a lot more time and resources on what was called vocational education, which included working on cars, learning to cook, and mastering the basics of plumbing and electrical work, among other things. However, a well-known report in 1983, called A Nation at Risk, pointed out that school leaders were using the programs to create a two-tier educational system. Black and Latino kids were overwhelmingly being steered into vocational education while white kids got a traditional college-track high school educational. It was unfair and it was racist.

We still see some semblance of what is now called career and technical education in high schools, but it is closely watched to make sure that it is not a cover for unfairness. We understand that some people in high school want to get some skills training and enter the workforce as soon as they graduate. That should be encouraged, but we also want young people who are just starting their working lives to understand that they will likely need a lot more education and training throughout their lives to be independent and make a decent living. We don’t want to go back to the days when most low-income students saw a vocational education as their only option. We want to make sure that all students have the opportunity to get an occupational certificate if that is what they want, but we also don’t want to close off their horizons and make them feel like they are not college material.


Looking Forward

Question 8

How will sales of the book The Merit Myth support CEW’s efforts to promote education and workforce reform? Are there any new initiatives or research topics you hope to undertake in the near future?

We all have written books before, and we’ve never made a nickel. But if there’s any money made, it will go to CEW. We don’t expect to make money, we just want people to read it.

We get most of our funding from non-profit organizations that see value and purpose in our work, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation.

We are just starting work on a few more reports on the troubled pathway from education to the workforce, and why it takes young people so much longer to gain independence and strike out on their own as adults. We think this country needs to do a lot better in creating good counseling systems that give people, starting in middle school and high school, good advice on careers and skills, and this system would carry on, helping people right on through their entry into the labor market. We will continue working in these areas.