Proposed merger of education, labor departments elicits mixed reactions

A White House proposal to combine the Department of Education and Department of Labor has been received by some as a logical step, while others have voiced concern about its implications for government investments, liberal arts education, and students of color. In announcing the proposal, part of a broader plan to reorganize the federal government, the administration touted the potential benefits of greater alignment between postsecondary education and workforce needs.

Proponents point to growing alignment between education, labor goals

Writing in the The Washington Post, Anthony P. Carnevale, the director and founder of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce and a former Labor Department official in the Clinton administration, called the proposed Department of Education and the Workforce “an idea worth serious consideration,” noting that while “there was a time, perhaps, when these departments could stand apart” their goals of “creat[ing] fully functional adults” are now inextricably linked, given that “in today’s world, to get a good job, you need an education.”

“We’ve moved away from a world in which 70 percent of jobs didn’t require any postsecondary education or training,” Carnevale told Inside Higher Ed. “The real world has made these connections, but we’ve not aligned these systems at all.”

Critics say education extends beyond workforce preparation

Critics of the proposal, however, questioned whether the two departments are well-matched. David Longanecker, interim president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education and a former high-ranking official in the Education Department under President Clinton, said there are a number of things “those agencies do that don’t really fit compatibly together.” “There’s a need for both of these departments,” he told Inside Higher Ed.

Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, also voiced concerns, asserting that the proposal “is an attempt to reduce higher education to workforce development at the expense of a liberal arts education.”

In his column in The Washington Post, Carnevale similarly cautions against reverting to a disproportionate focus on vocational education in high school, which at one time “overwhelmingly led students to be tracked, based on race, class, and gender, into low-skilled and low-paying jobs” and widened income inequality. Rather, he sees value in earlier exposure to career options and in “straightening the path from education to work.”

In an opinion piece for The Hechinger Report, Andre Perry, Ph.D.—a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution and the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Michigan—asserts that the departments should remain standalone agencies and suggests that combining them would have especially concerning implications for students of color.

While acknowledging that “education is linked to the workplace,” Perry says “to collapse education and labor into a single agency is to also reduce education’s role in developing full human beings,” by “downplaying its political, social, and development roles.” “Black students, whose ancestors’ bodies were once reduced to instruments of labor in slavery,” he continues, “have the most to lose from a shortsighted, politically-driven merger of the U.S. education and labor departments.”

According to Insider Higher Ed, the proposal to merge the two departments is “likely a political nonstarter” and will “face steep odds of advancing in Congress, which must approve any such reorganization.”

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce is an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute that studies the link between individual goals, education and training curricula, and career pathways. For more information, visit

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