A Conversation with Carol D’Amico, former Executive VP for Strada Education Network

Feature Article – By George Lorenzo – Published April 16, 2021 in Workforce Monitor – Subscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

This is the second in a series of articles in which we interview veteran education professionals in the field of workforce development (WFD) and its correlation with education.

Carol D’Amico has a long and interesting background in the world of education and workforce development, ranging from pre-K-12 to adult education. She’s served as VP for Project Lead The Way, Executive VP at Ivy Tech Community College, Assistant Secretary Office of Vocational and Adult Education for the U.S. Department of Education, Senior Fellow in Education and Co-Director of the Center for Workforce Development at the conservative think-tank Hudson Institute, and most recently Executive VP Mission Advancement and Philanthropy for the Strada Education Network. She has chaired and continues to serve on several national and state-level boards related to education and WFD. 

I had a very pleasant conversation with Carol D’Amico. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity. 

WFM: How would you characterize what many are labeling as a huge “disconnect” between postsecondary education and the skills employers are seeking from job candidates?

CD: The data aren’t disputable on the disconnect between what education providers think they’re providing, and what is actually being perceived by employers in terms of readiness for employment. Gallup has done a lot of work in this area. More importantly, consumers of education think there’s a disconnect. You can also look at some of the reports on the Strada Education Network that ask current and past students [about their workforce preparedness]. Only about a third of current college students think they are being well prepared. So, the disconnect has been well documented.

WFM: Why do you think higher education does not seem to be able to solve this disconnect image/problem more efficiently?

CD: First of all, they’re not held accountable to it. That’s not how their performance is evaluated. That’s not how they’re incentivized. That’s not how they’re funded. The incentives are just not there to address this issue directly. The accreditors don’t ask for that. State policies normally don’t. Most of the time, they’re not funded. And people behave in their own best interests. It’s unlike other sectors [such as hospitals] where consumer satisfaction is a part of the accountability system.

WFM: Should there be a standardized taxonomy among all credential providers that helps potential learners get a better understanding of their education investments?

CD: When one million credentials were touted, I thought about the poor consumer. How do you make sense of that? You cannot; there’s no way. So how do you help a consumer figure out the market value of those credentials, what they cost, what the return on investment is going to be for them in the area where they live – not in a macro area, but in Buffalo or Indianapolis, for example? Consumers need to understand what this credential will qualify me for in my city.

WFM:  What do you think it would take to build an effective consumer-oriented information system that would focus on career readiness and education?

CD: I think it would take state policy changes, governors and commissioners, and trustees that are appointed by governors to get together and do it themselves? I don’t think it’s going to come from the federal government, although they’ve sort of tried with the College Navigator site. And I don’t think it’s going to come from higher education accreditors.

WFM: Why do you think higher education accrediting agencies will not have stronger elements related to workforce preparedness and education outcomes embedded in their policies and standards?

CD: Think about the accreditation system for a minute. It’s peer controlled. So, you go on these accreditation visits, and they are fellow colleagues. They are a membership organization controlled by the Academy, and it is a very closed system. There are no laymen or consumers on those accreditation review committees. It’s all inside. So, where could it [a better system] come from? It could come from trustees of universities that are laymen, businesspeople appointed by governors. It could come from a governor or a commissioner. But it would take someone to really shepherd that movement. 

WFM: It seems like every day another philanthropic initiative funds copious amounts of dollars for meaningful education and workforce programs. Smart educators then go to work and tackle the important issues, publish informative papers and articles, and often create programs with positive results. But then the grant term for funding runs out and everything dies off until another round of funding comes along. Is there a better way?

CD: There’s no incentive to continue the innovation. All of the pressure is to do things as they’ve always been done. And without the accreditation agencies, without governors and commissioners and trustees demanding change, it’s just going to be really difficult. The best ideas are just always going to sit parallel on the side. The K-12 sector does a much better job of taking ideas and incorporating them into the DNA. That’s because they’re held accountable for results. And there is an innovation track most days where you do not just see ideas, but you keep them going. And they are funded with the public dollars in the same way as the traditional system is funded. There’s no such thing in higher ed. The incentive and accountability structures must change. 

WFM: How would you characterize the impact of COVID-19 on higher education?  

CD: It had a tremendous impact. Strada did a survey at the outset of COVID in March of 2020. And every week, for the last year, they’ve been surveying the American public about views and motivations around higher education. And those views have changed substantially. First of all, the perceived value of higher education has been cut substantially. People are questioning the value more than they did pre-COVID. The time commitment, the cost, the logistics, negotiating it with family responsibilities – all of this is overwhelming. The enrollments at community colleges have declined considerably. No one can figure this out. During normal economic downturns, enrollments increase. This time they decreased substantially. And I think it’s because the whole system just seems overwhelming with everything else going on. Not just for safety, or safety concerns, but when everything had to shift online, it became ‘you’re still charging me the full price, and I’m getting a different experience. Why? Yeah, you know, I’m at home in my pajamas, and you’re still charging me a gym fee?’ It just caused a lot of confusion about pricing and the delivery.

Related Resources:

Strada Center for Consumer Insight’s Public Viewpoint Work and Education Research

Congressional Research Service’s “An Overview of Accreditation of Higher Education in the United States,” published October 16, 2020. 

Carnegie Corporation of New York and Gallup: Family Voices: Building Pathways From Learning to Meaningful Work, published April 2021.