Higher Education

Earning a college degree means having skills other workers don’t have

But American adults still lag behind those of other wealthy nations

Do college graduates earn more because of the degree they got, or because of the knowledge they acquired in college? A new federal study released Wednesday suggests that adult workers with bachelor’s degrees have job-related skills that other workers don’t. But Americans still lag workers in other nations on tests of these skills.

The study, called the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, or PIAAC, compares workers in more than 20 wealthy countries on their abilities to process written and numerical information commonly found in work and social settings. It was first done in 2011-12, and the new study, from 2013-14, adds a closer look, by category, at young adults, older adults and the unemployed in the U.S. labor force.

The findings, the researchers say, give a more detailed picture of the relationship between skills like numeracy and literacy and a U.S. worker’s age and education.

“Troublingly, there are more U.S. adults at the lowest proficiency levels in all of the skills tested than the international average,” said Peggy Carr, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which prepared the report, in cooperation with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

As in other international comparisons that explore academic strengths, the United States, overall, scored as average in reading skills and below average in computational skills, compared to countries such as Canada, Finland, Germany, Japan, South Korea and Spain.

The study is one of the first to show that a college degree confers core knowledge that adults without degrees are less likely to possess.

“This allows us for the first time to be able to compare what it is that someone knows with what sort of degree they have,” said Stephen Provasnik, a researcher for NCES and a technical advisor on PIAAC. “That allows us to make distinctions that we haven’t been able to make in the past Economists have always used level of education as a proxy for the skills that one has. Now what PIAAC does is allows us to measure directly those skills, without having to use the education certification as a proxy.”

Among U.S. adults age 16-34 with at least a bachelor’s degree, slightly less than a third received either of the two highest scores – a four or five – on the literacy portion of the assessment. The same was true for just 17 percent of workers with an associate’s degree, 10 percent of those with a high-school diploma and 4 percent of those who never completed high school.

The trends for computational skills, or numeracy, and for “problem-solving in technology-rich environments” – a measurement that assesses how well a worker can navigate a website, for example, or interpret signs in a digital setting – were similar. The higher the education level, the more likely the person scored a four or five.

But the scores for all education groups were much lower than they were in the literacy assessment — by roughly a third in numeracy and half in digital problem-solving.

The lower the education attainment, the likelier the worker was to have earned a score of two or below. For example, more than half of workers with a high school diploma earned a score of two or below in literacy.

Test questions ranged in difficulty. A level-three numeracy question could ask an adult to calculate the total cost of buying two pairs of shoes during a sale in which the second pair is sold at half-price. In literacy, a level-four question could ask an adult to read a list of book descriptions and infer which book counters claims made by an opponent of genetically modified foods.

Since its debut in 2013, some scholars have questioned the PIAAC’s reliability in gauging workforce readiness, citing the strength of the U.S. economy compared to those of some other countries that have high PIAAC scores.

According to the PIAAC figures, large differences exist in the literacy and computational skills between employed and unemployed adults. More than half of employed adults ages 16-65 posted scores in the top three levels for literacy, while just over a third of unemployed workers performed that well.

And according to PIAAC, three-quarters of the U.S. unemployed workers had either a high-school diploma or less; roughly half of those adults placed in the two lowest score levels for numeracy. Among unemployed college-educated adults, a comparatively smaller 13 percent scored in the two lowest levels.

The report contains data on more than 8,000 adults, selected to be representative of the entire U.S. workforce.

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

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Mikhail Zinshteyn

Mikhail Zinshteyn contributes regularly to The Atlantic. His writing about education has also appeared in FiveThirtyEight, The National Journal, CityLab and other outlets. Born in… See Archive