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Stanford scholar on research needed to help Americans without post-secondary degrees

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Mitchell Stevens, professor of education at Stanford University

Mitchell Stevens discusses proposal to  build an applied science to support ‘working learners.’

Scholars and policy makers recognize new educational pathways are needed to enable upward mobility for working adults without four-year college degrees. A new report, which emerged from a series of meetings hosted last summer by Stanford’s Transforming Learning Accelerator, highlights the absence of research to guide such a dramatic shift in the U.S. education and employment systems.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the report offers nine recommendations to build an applied science to understand the challenges of providing valuable education and mobility opportunities for “working learners,” the 70 million adults in the United States who, while employed, are denied many opportunities for economic mobility because they lack a four-year college credential.

Mitchell Stevens, a sociologist and professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education, is a co-author of the report, released Jan. 19, that arose from the virtual gatherings in July of more than 180 education leaders. As a member of an advisory council to the Office of the Vice Provost for Digital Education, he offers guidance on Stanford efforts to develop new online and hybrid approaches to teaching and learning, as well as other innovations in how schooling is organized, that will serve people who historically have not had access to a Stanford education.

In this new report, Stevens and colleagues describe how an applied science of working learners must bring together two different streams of research. “What we're seeking is a comprehensive way of understanding how people make sense of their own educational and occupational journeys, while also advancing our understanding of the social context within which those journeys are unfolding,” Stevens said.

According to the report, a multidisciplinary approach is needed. It must embrace learning science, which examines how people acquire new knowledge and capacities. And it must embrace social science, which analyzes how educational systems and workplaces allocate, certify, and reward people. “It’s important to appreciate the distinction,” Stevens said. “I can learn something without getting a credential that will open doors of opportunity, and, in turn, I can get a credential that opens doors without having learned very much.”

He added, “To build new education and employment systems for working learners, we need to build a science in which both of those domains of knowledge are supported in complementary ways.”

Jonathan Rabinovitz, communications director of Stanford Digital Education, recently interviewed Stevens about the conditions that led to the report, its conclusions, the prospects for change, and the role that Stanford can play in providing more opportunities for working learners. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Jonathan Rabinovitz: Can you give a quick summary of the report’s recommendations?

Mitchell Stevens: In a nutshell, we're arguing that government should play a leadership role through investing in an applied science of adult and lifelong learning. This effort needs to have a particular emphasis on understanding the educational and work trajectories of adults who do not have four-year college degrees.

To date, most of the research conducted to understand teaching, learning and educational progress has been organized around the first quarter of life. So unfortunately, the relationship between school, work and biography across the life course is really a black box from a scientific and policy perspective in the United States; we haven't invested in the capacity to systematically observe how work and learning opportunities accumulate across the life course. Without that kind of applied science, it's very hard to make informed policy, strategic investments, or data-driven reforms in hiring practices.

JR: Why do we need to target “working learners”?

MS: Those adults who don't have the benefit of a four-year college credential are categorically disadvantaged in labor markets, whatever skills they may or may not possess. A BA has become a baseline credential for the vast majority of reasonable secure, career-laddered jobs in this country. Employers can legally discriminate against anyone who does not have a college degree. And when they legally discriminate on that basis, they are also implicitly benefiting people who are more likely to have had the resources necessary to obtain college degrees: the White and affluent.

No one planned it, but by the end of the last century, a four-year college degree had become a fateful dividing line in American life. On one side of that divide stable, reasonably well- compensated jobs, better health, more stable families, more informed civic participation and lengthening lifespans. On the other side is what social scientists call “precarity”: marginal employment, poorer healthcare, dangerous levels of debt, more tenuous personal relationships, and depression. Precarity in turn is associated higher rates of incarceration and early death.  So this educational divide is huge issue for civic life and public health. Ilana Horwitz and I summarize research on this troubling pattern in a report for the Stanford Center on Longevity’s New Map of Life project.

Traditionally the answer to improving opportunity in the United States has been to get as many people into and through four-year college as possible. But despite more than 75 years of effort — ever since Congress passed the GI Bill for returning WW II veterans in 1944 — only about a third of adult Americans enjoy the benefits of possessing a four-year college degree. Thankfully there has been increasing recognition that the United States ought to be providing more avenues to prosperity in ways that don't punish people for not having had a certain kind of school credential by their 22nd birthday.

However well-intended, the college-for-all project, which has organized ambitions for social mobility in the United States since the GI Bill, has come to split the country. We might in theory attempt to get everyone a college diploma, but even if we could muster political will to pay for that, we’d effectively be forcing millions of Americans to make educational commitments that they do not necessarily want. It would be much better, and on my view more generous to our fellow citizens, to expand opportunities for learning and mobility across the life course, and better reward wisdom and skills people develop outside of conventional classrooms.

JR: What part is there for Stanford to play?

MS: Stanford has its own history in all of this. What began as the Honors Cooperative Program in 1959 and has ever since provided a wide range of learning opportunities for people in engineering and other applied-technology fields. It’s an important legacy of meeting workers and employers where they are and building learning opportunities to suit particular needs.

What we are now looking at is a new phase of opportunity creation for people who have previously have not had easy access to Stanford’s legacy programs. Last year Provost Persis Drell established Stanford Digital Education, under Vice Provost Matthew Rascoff, to lead a university-wide effort to devise courses and educational pathways that will help make education more equitable. The recently launched Transforming Learning Accelerator is another strand of these efforts. And the Office of Community Engagement has begun a campus-wide conversation to explore how Stanford could deepen collaboration to support working learners. To quote my colleague Megan Swezey Fogarty, associate vice president for community engagement, “We need to learn from leaders across campus, local community colleges, workforce development agencies and others how we can contribute to improve knowledge and skills not only for our own employees but for others in the region as well.”  

JR: What are the questions that need to be studied by researchers?

MS: First, we need to be able to observe how people move through a variety of education and work experiences over the course of their entire lives. People already are moving in and out of work and learning opportunities well past the age of 22, but at present public agencies don't capture that movement. So we don't really know the value of certain learning opportunities. If they're not conventional college degrees provided by public institutions, or private ones that receive federal funding, we have almost no systematic information about learning, progress, or earnings returns. From a public-policy standpoint that is downright shocking. We’re walking in the dark.

The report recommendations involve building a research infrastructure to observe how people accumulate educational and work experiences over the course of their entire lives, so we can see what works and what doesn't for what kinds of people, and then create, learning opportunities, career guidance, and job ladders in light of that knowledge.

The report recommends developing new systems for collecting data. Most of the population-level data that researchers have on education and learning has come through federal bureaucracies and government funding. Governments provide funding for K-12 schools and higher education and then they require reporting. It becomes the basis for the science that we currently do. But when organizations that do not receive government funding are providing those educational services there's virtually no publicly available data trace.

In recent years the variety of providers of educational services has grown spectacularly, and we can no longer presume that traditional colleges and universities are the only or even the primary places where adults are going to be seeking learning opportunities. Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft and many others provide educational opportunities and certifications, along with a host of newer, smaller providers in the ed-tech space. That’s a new frontier for education research generally, as more and more of the data sources that we could use to build knowledge are held in the private sector.

JR: What are the report’s recommendations about helping people learn later in life?

MS:  It’s critical that we better understand the social psychology of transitions. Changing careers is a very challenging phenomenon: cognitively, emotionally. Consider how much of people’s identities are tied to what they do for a living. In making a job transition, or returning to school after years away, people have to make peace with the conclusion of one life stage and then develop the ambition and motivation to invest again in the next one. That can be scary. Stanford researchers’ long legacy of work on mindset, stereotype threat, education and identity could be really important in building our understanding of life transitions and practical supports to help people navigate them.

This is because thee life-changes are not just about learning a new skill. They are about working on the self. You have to become a different person. You have to develop new ways of interacting and cooperating with new sorts of people. And you have to have the confidence and courage to keep at it.

Another part of this new applied science is examining the instruction that already is happening through digital media. The art and science of educational use of those media are still in their infancy. Like anyone who's been to Zoom school knows, this is a whole different world that requires different instructional techniques and tools. We're still very much in the discovery phase of that.