A New Year, A New Letter

For one night in December, the gap foremost in my mind was not the skills gap, but rather Big Stone Gap. I was asked to speak at the annual meeting of Virginia’s community colleges and had the good fortune to dine next to a recent graduate from Big Stone Gap, VA. I professed ignorance of the town, which was met with incredulity by others at the table. Big Stone Gap was famous, I was told, because it was where Elizabeth Taylor nearly choked to death on a chicken bone.

I nearly choked on my dinner: “That’s what Big Stone Gap is famous for? A town that’s been around for hundreds of years?” Nods around the table, including my embarrassed young friend. After dinner, I looked it up and found what must be one of the most bizarre headlines in the history of the Washington Post: “A Chicken Bone Sticks in Throat of Elizabeth Taylor.” In 1978, Taylor was accompanying her seventh husband, Senate candidate John Warner, on the campaign trail. At Fraley’s Coach House in Big Stone Gap, she visited the kitchen to greet the chef. He offered her a chicken wing, which she swallowed, and a two-inch bone lodged in her esophagus. According to the Post “despite efforts to dislodge it with a chaser of soft bread… it refused to budge.”

My thoughts turned back to the skills gap. Despite tens of millions of workers out of position relative to employer needs, despite Millennials falling far behind prior generations on every economic metric, our postsecondary education and workforce development systems have refused to budge.


Just as Elizabeth Taylor’s life was at risk, I’m convinced that America is as well. The skills gap and its knock-on effects are our single biggest domestic problem: the sense that good jobs are out of reach; the sense that the American Dream is dying and that our kids are unlikely to do as well as we have; and actual lost economic output. It’s all given rise to a loss of hope, an increase in the rural/urban divide, and political extremism.

Employers must accept a good deal of the blame here. They adopt new technologies without investing in talent, assuming qualified candidates will show up on their doorstep. As exemplified most recently by Amazon, they concentrate high-skill, high paying jobs in “winner” urban areas, scattering low paying jobs everywhere else. And they continue to lean on degree requirements as a convenient way to screen out hundreds of applicants for entry-level jobs. But blaming employers is tilting at windmills. The last century settled that allowing private actors to make profit-maximizing economic decisions produces much greater wealth in aggregate and per capita. We must accept the bad with the good. And ensuring that bounty and opportunity are fairly distributed is the responsibility of the public, not-for-profit, and impact-oriented private sectors.

Our current system of universities, colleges, community colleges, and workforce boards are ostensibly responsible for solving these problems and serving the public good. And public policy continues to rely on them with a level of exclusivity that is remarkable and unsustainable. Only accredited postsecondary institutions are eligible to participate in federal financial aid and state grant programs. Private savings are similarly restricted; 529 college savings plans can only be utilized at accredited colleges and universities.

Even the Congressman from Innovation-land hasn’t figured out what innovation means here. Ro Khanna represents California’s 17th District, which includes Silicon Valley. His recent op-ed in the New York Times begins with a Future of Work polemic (“many traditional industries are becoming digital” e.g., hospitality, agriculture, how in “the next 10 years, nearly 60 percent of jobs could have a third of their tasks automated by artificial intelligence”) before offering his solution: “We need to provide additional funds to existing community colleges and land-grant universities to create tech institutes in places left behind.”

While Khanna means well, there are two ways in which traditional higher education has done its best chicken bone impression by stubbornly refusing to budge. The first is colleges and universities continue to spin the paternalistic fantasy that the only pathway to active participation in the dynamic economy should require 120 credits in a college classroom. Khanna cites West Virginia University’s new tech institute in Beckley as his model. And while WVU Tech offers degree programs like aviation management and electronic engineering technology that are much more likely to lead to good first jobs than pseudo-professional degree programs like business and marketing, they’re all bachelor’s degree programs.

The problem, of course, is that the typical American Khanna is most concerned about is unlikely be able to dedicate four, five, or six years to a postsecondary program or pathway without health issues, or personal issues, or family issues getting in the way. The idea that college is the only way has been birthed and nurtured over the past 50 years by elites whose own health, personal, and family situations made college easy for them. And if they’ve benefited from the experience, why shouldn’t everyone else?

The casualties of this approach are now clear. Half the students who’ve enrolled in college since 1980 never graduated and many drop out with student loan debt, worse off than if they’d never enrolled in the first place. It’s been particularly cruel to older manufacturing workers who require upskilling and retraining in order to keep their heads above water. We’ve been telling them that their only option runs through a college classroom where they probably weren’t successful years earlier. A decade from now, we’ll look back and say it was crazy to believe that the only answer was a traditional classroom at an accredited postsecondary institution.

The second and related problem is that because we’re hung up on monumental degree programs, the admissions requirements and processes are complex, cumbersome, and based primarily on demonstrated ability rather than ability to benefit. Standardized test scores and grade point average provide more information about a candidate’s family income and stability than potential, let alone the need for a leg up. “Holistic review,” which all schools claim they do, is window dressing while new approaches remain in their infancy. Millions of Americans on the wrong side of skills gap have been dissuaded from applying in the first place. Millions more have been rejected from programs they need.

The upshot has been brutal for the college consensus. A few months ago, Boston – which despite what Spinal Tap might say, remains a fairly significant college town – attempted to find out exactly how brutal. WGBH, Boston’s public radio station, commissioned a national poll and found that 55% of Americans no longer believe college is “necessary to get ahead in life,” and only four in 10 respondents under 40 believe college is even worth attending. (Sadly, last month Boston became somewhat less of a college town, as Newbury College announced this semester will be its last.) And as Democratic candidates for President begin to throw their hats into the ring, I’d be remiss not to add that free college not only does nothing to solve either of these two problems. In fact, it exacerbates them by reifying the importance of traditional college for those whom the current system is failing most.


In the Washington Post last week, CUNY’s Cathy Davidson rejected higher education’s responsibility for the skills gap, saying “the most relevant education in the world cannot change a labor market rigged against the middle class. This is a social problem, not a higher education problem.” But even if she’s right (and she’s not), mission-driven public and not-for-profit colleges universities ought to be motivated to try to solve this “social problem” rather than sit there throwing stones at capitalism. To paraphrase your least favorite Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, you're sending young people out into the labor market you have, not the labor market you might want or wish to have at a later time.

WVU Tech does have one non-degree program: a certificate in Fraud Management: an apt metaphor for higher education’s feeble efforts to date to solve these problems. They remind me of Elizabeth Taylor’s “chaser of soft bread.” What ultimately saved her life was a rubber tube that nearby Lonesome Pine Hospital inserted into her esophagus to physically push the chicken bone down into her stomach.

In this case, the rubber tube is a paradigm shift in how we think about what programs and models to discuss, promote, and support. Determining educational quality has become so complex and nuanced, it reminds me of medieval debates on how many angels fit on the head of a pin. What’s needed is a simplifying approach: Does this program or pathway lead to good first jobs i.e., full-time employment, making $50,000 or more, with clear career paths in a stable or growing sector? If it does, it warrants enthusiasm. If it doesn’t, we must direct our resources elsewhere.

Looking at our postsecondary education and workforce development systems through this lens focuses and clarifies. Certainly we have many other goals that aren’t reflected in career and economic success. But numbers don’t lie; continuing to direct public (and not-for-profit and impact capital) resources to institutions and programs where the economics don’t work reminds me of nothing more than the waning days of the Soviet Union. (Newbury College knows what I’m talking about.)

The other lesson I draw from Elizabeth Taylor’s chicken bone is that no one wants to be remembered as the person from the town where she almost choked to death. We all want to make our mark by making a difference. And making a difference usually means doing something differently.

Farewell UV Letter. Welcome to the Gap Letter.