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January 16, 2024

Beyond The Doctrine Of “College Is For Everyone”

Young people are increasingly turning away from college as a path to their future. Just four in 10 young adults say a college degree is very important, down from 74% just a decade ago, says Adam Tooze, a history professor at Columbia University. He adds that now about half of American parents don’t want their children to enroll […]

Young people are increasingly turning away from college as a path to their future.

Just four in 10 young adults say a college degree is very important, down from 74% just a decade ago, says Adam Tooze, a history professor at Columbia University. He adds that now about half of American parents don’t want their children to enroll in a four-year degree. It’s an issue we see echoed in our news feeds.

Both young adults and their parents are questioning the return on investment in college. It comes down to what premium they’ll earn for slogging out their college years compared to those who opt not to. The graduate wage premium has roughly been about two-thirds higher than for non-graduates for the past two decades.

On that, Georgtown Unviersity’s Center on Education and the Workforce dug into the data for 4,000 colleges and universities. They found that a decade after they finish their courses, six in 10 graduates beat the earnings of high school graduates. Is that enough premium and wouldn’t you want to know that information before you enrol in a course?

Is it worth the debt students accrue?

Maybe it’s time for a serious chat about a cheaper (but not necessarily second-best) option - Career and Technical Education? More about that below.

There’s scant data from individual colleges on their fees, graduate rates, earnings, and employment, says Inside Higher Ed.

The College Transparency Act, now in Congress, may change that, but it was tabled mid-pandemic nearly three years ago. If it passes, students and families will have transparency about higher education institutions’ graduate outcomes, the costs and financial aid available, and more.

Why ratings matter

We read reviews to research and help decide on major purchases, such as a home, car, or holiday, so why can’t we do the same for a college degree?

Australia for instance has a Graduate Outcomes Survey that captures information about short-term employment, skills use, further study, and graduate satisfaction. If you trawl through each university’s website, you can find information about the fees for particular courses. It can take a bit of sleuthing, though.

Meanwhile, The Good Universities Guide is an online portal for would-be students to search for ratings about:

  • Learning resources, overall experience & skills development
  • Student support, social equity & staff qualification
  • Student demand, student-teacher ratio & learner engagement
  • Percentage of students who were the first in their family to go to college
  • Teaching quality, graduate salary, full-time employment, and international student progression score.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., we’ve got an idea of the overall graduate employment rate. On the surface, it sounds good, with Statista showing just 4.4% of recent US college graduates were jobless in September last year. But that’s actually much higher than for the rest of the population and that’s generally been the case since 1990, says The Washington Post.

Even the U.S. Department of Education says education is “often no longer enough to access high-quality jobs that pay well”. But part of that could be society’s rallying cry to add even more responsibilities that ‘should be taught at school’. We need to look elsewhere for paths to well-paid meaningful work.

The age of uncertainty prompts us to question old paths

Are young people wising up to college alternatives? Is that a good thing? If you’re a parent, here’s how to help your child navigate their first steps towards full-time employment.

The younger generation isn’t saying ‘not now, not ever’ to college. Maybe they’ll chip away at a degree part-time and online when the time’s right and it fits their career goals. That’s sensible. Few of us are primed to have a long-range view these days in the wake of pandemic disruption and the current economic uncertainty.

Let’s look at what’s happening in workplaces.

For example, tech companies had their hiring sprees, then mass layoffs to right-size staffing. Crunchbase is keeping a tally of US-based tech workers’ job cuts – it hit 191,000+ last year.

Another wrench in the works is generative artificial intelligence. It could take the pressure off corralling young people into careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Christopher Pissarides, an economist and Nobel-prize winner, has posited AI will take STEM jobs. Almost half of almost 2,800 researchers who had published in top-tier AI journals said machines could outperform humans in “every possible task” by 2047. However, those who conducted the survey acknowledge forecasting is difficult, even for experts.

What type of jobs won’t AI take in a hurry, according to Pissarides?

Focus on employability skills

They’re the skills employers have been demanding from their charges for years – face-to-face communication and care skills like enterprise or soft skills. Strong themes are managing, creativity, and empathy. Employers are slowly seeing these skills as more valuable than a college degree.

The backstory is employers have been calling the shots on the degree requirement for too long. Increasingly since the 1980s, they’ve included degrees as must-haves for a swathe of vacancies. writes that this has needlessly barred two-thirds of the American workforce out of higher-paying roles.

But, there’s been considerable pushback. Harvard Business School and the Burning Glass Institute analyzed 51 million job ads from the five years to 2019. They found that almost half of middle-skill and about three in 10 high-skill roles ditched degree requirements for social and technical skills. That shift predominated between 2017 and 2019. Since then, we’ve seen big tech companies, and even governments ditch the degree requirement.

Alternative paths to meaningful careers

More state governments need to review the fairness and reasonableness of their statutory degree requirements for public service roles. At last count, about 10 states, including my home state of California, have done so, says the National Conference on State Legislatures. That move is sensible considering the stubbornly high number of vacant positions in state government. In mid-January, LinkedIn reported over 45,000 open state government roles.

Apart from state governments though, where can non-graduates hunt for work? The U.S. Career Institute lists 80 jobs paying $50K-plus that don’t ask for a degree. Instead, depending on the role, they require a high-school diploma, career and technical education (CTE), or have candidates do on-the-job training, such as an apprenticeship.

How do these alternatives to college sound to you? Particularly if you’re a parent of a child in their senior year of high school. CTE has been quietly skilling up high schoolers and school leavers for in-demand jobs. More than half of US high school students already take part in some type of career technical education.

The Department of Education has funded its Raise the Bar: Lead the World campaign to government, agencies, businesses, and industry to help young people unlock career success through CTE. February is Career and Technical Education Month, thanks to the Association for Career and Technical Education. CTE is for everyone. Seek out CTE resources to ensure they hit your newsfeed next month.

Your state may have a similar program to the Career Launchpad facilited by employer partners and other stakeholders including a non profit organization I’m asociated with. It helps run in California for high school juniors and seniors, including those with a disability. The bridges to alternative pathways to college may well be hiding in plain sight.

Article written by:  Orville Lynch, Jr.
Mr. Lynch, a member of the legendary two-time Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame Award winning Lynch Family. Mr. Lynch is a nationally recognized urban media executive with over 20+ years of diversity recruitment and serial entrepreneur with numerous multi-million dollar exits.
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