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Dr. Anthony Carnevale on the Changing Journey from Adolescence to Adulthood

Historical and cultural moments that impacted the evolution of the American education system

In a new episode of the MindMaxing podcast series, “Adolescence to Adulthood,” Dr. Anthony Carnevale outlines the political, economic, and social shifts that have made obtaining a college education a necessity—and a challenge—for many students, especially those from lower-income families.

As research Professor and Director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Dr. Carnevale has studied the decades-in-the-making transformation of American education and its impact on young adults seeking employment.

Years ago, high school education was enough to help a young adult land a job with a living wage. Today, college—if not a secondary degree—is a requirement.


3 Major Shifts in American Education

Between 1970 and 1983, three fundamental shifts gave way to a new approach to American education.

1. Secondary education became the gateway to a middle-class life

In the 1970s, secondary education was not the norm, nor was it necessary. It was more common for high school graduates to follow in a family member’s footsteps and take up a local job.

However, notes Dr. Carnevale, as the recession ended in 1983, secondary education gradually became “the most well-traveled pathway to the middle class.” As a result, the average American young person began taking until the age of 32 to arrive at a middle-class level—up from age 25, which was the average in the 1970s.

2. Vocational schools lost popularity and political backing

During the same period, educational policy began abandoning vocational schools. “And we did so for a good reason,” says Dr. Carnevale.

“People were being moved into occupations. . . when you looked years later, they weren’t doing any better than the people who arrived at those occupations with no prior vocational education.”

3. Social movements ended the postwar tracking system

By the 1980s, citizens also had grown disenchanted with “comprehensive high school.”

A tracking system developed after World War II by James Conant, author of The American High School Today (1959), comprehensive high school centered on the theory that only 5% of the population needed advanced education. Dr. Carnevale shares, “James Conant and the powers that be in America decided that’s all we needed to staff this new world economic and military power and to fight the communist.” 

The top 5% of male students were to go to college and become the nation’s leaders. The other 95% of male students? They took up vocational education. The female students learned home economics and typing, or nothing at all.

But the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements forced society to change, and by the 1980s, the American people “had enough of tracking,” notes Dr. Carnevale.


A Nation at Risk Initiates a Turning Point

In 1983, a 36-page study commissioned by President Reagan painted a bleak picture of education in the United States, deeming the country: A Nation at Risk. The study warned that unless massive policy change could reform the educational system, the United States would cease to be a world leader and global powerhouse.

In response, the new K-12 system was installed to provide every American child with a good general education, thereby ending vocational education. Along the way, secondary and post-secondary education became the new standard.

However, the strides made in American academics also forced the youth labor market to collapse. “Young people were not getting decent work experience anymore. The jobs they could get, which were much fewer and actually paid less in real dollars, didn’t have the kinds of experiences you needed to get a long-term career,” notes Dr. Carnevale.


Making It in Today’s America

Although integrating work-based learning into education is a challenge that remains today, secondary education is still required to “make it” in America.

How do Dr. Carnevale and Georgetown define “making it” in America? When a 40-year-old person earns a minimum $45,000 annual salary. Unfortunately, only 20% of 40-year-olds working jobs that require a high school diploma (and no secondary education) make at least $45,000. Many of those good “high school jobs” have historically gone to males; female students have stayed in school longer to remain competitive.

Today, we have an education system that stretches from preschool to post-secondary education, and it largely determines whether or not a person will achieve success. And as a society, we’ve adopted a belief that if you work hard and do well in school, you’ll succeed—but that thinking shows individualist biases. Dr. Carnevale notes that while “education has the ability to expand opportunity” and “solve upward mobility problems by race and class and gender,” it falls short because of economic disparity.

Of the students who have high IQs and test scores and come from the bottom quartile of the family income distribution (the lowest 25%), only 30% “make it” in America. By contrast, students from the highest quartile of family income—those in the top 25% financially—who have the lowest test scores and don’t perform well at school have a 70% chance of making it. So, states Dr. Carnevale, “it’s still true that it’s better to be rich than smart in America.” 


An Integrated Approach Is the Path Forward

Knowing that extreme economic disparity exists in the American education system, it can be hard to identify possible solutions. However, Dr. Carnevale has hope for progress as the collective focus shifts to an education system that integrates experience.

“All the way from preschool to kindergarten, to grade school, to middle school, to high school, to post-secondary and then into the labor market. . . there’s a lot of emphasis now on trying to interconnect these systems,” he says. 

Dr. Carnevale notes that the new approach doesn’t “track” anyone but exposes students to possible career pathways through internships and work-based learning programs. While finding the right opportunities can be challenging, there’s more demand for this type of real-world experience, as it focuses on the success of the whole human.

“The happy news,” he states, “has been that the economy wants full people. The economy, the employer, wants the whole person on the job now.”

Hiring managers want better-skilled workers with well-rounded knowledge. Dr. Carnevale states that the purpose of higher education “is that in the end, you want to be sure that everybody leaves with a future.” 


The MindMaxing Podcast, hosted by MindMax Founder & CEO Lee Maxey, offers enlightening and timely interviews with higher education leaders and is available at Since 2009, MindMax has partnered with colleges and universities to serve their programs’ strategic growth objectives through digital marketing and enrollment services.

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