What's the best advice you can give someone to ensure their future is full of opportunity? Most would automatically reply, "Go to college." For many people, that’s still true. But recent trends are showing that this advice may not be right for everyone, and that our singular focus on four-year degrees may actually make it harder for many to climb the ladder of opportunity.
The economic data on the benefits of graduating college is unambiguously clear. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, college graduates have two times the median weekly earnings as non-graduates and are twice as likely to be employed. A study by the Lumina Foundation found that lifetime earnings of a college graduate are at least $600,000 more than a high school graduate never attending college, and that graduates are also more likely to have health insurance through work, safer jobs, and longer lives.
CBD College, a vocational school in California, goes one step further, telling prospective applicants on its website that by getting a degree, "You will be happier overall."
For the vast majority of four-year degree holders, these statistics are true. Education really is the key that opens doors to opportunity, and we should be encouraging all high schoolers to consider college as a way to build their skills and increase their future opportunities.
But not all degrees are created equal, and some students find that out the hard way. ITT Tech (a for-profit college network shut down in 2016 by the Department of Education), for example, was regularly criticized for outdated programs that didn't actually help students get better jobs, leaving many graduates in worse financial shape than when they began.
Paul Friederichsen, who helped design TV ads for ITT Tech, commented on why some colleges have so much success in touting the benefits of their programs, even when the data on employment outcomes says otherwise. "Higher education brands, because of their intellectual product, automatically occupy a higher perceived status in the consumer's mind of trust. Therefore, their messages are given more believability, as a rule," wrote Friederichsen in the New York Daily News.
If we want to reduce income inequality and help people break out of the cycles of poverty, simply advising everyone to get a degree is not the answer.
Still, if you go to an accredited school with a generally good reputation (and think critically about the major you choose and state you plan to work in, which are large factors in projecting future earnings), student loans still provide a positive return on investment. Mark Schneider at the American Enterprise Institute has done extensive research comparing the return on investment from different schools, but more data is needed to give students a full perspective on the tradeoffs they make when deciding where to attend college and what to study.
However, for those who don't actually complete their degrees, going to college may actually put them behind.
Data on completion rates from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center paints a dark picture. Almost half of students who start a four-year degree program have not completed it within six years. For minorities, the data is even more troubling —six years after beginning four-year programs, more than half have still not received their degree. The average student loan debt owed by a college dropout is more than $13,000, and almost half of these dropouts are in default on their debt.
Those who dropout of college could find themselves with the same career prospects as when they started, but with more debt and less experience than other non-degree-holders in the workforce.
As society pushes more and more young people toward college as the only plausible path to employment, students become convinced that a four-year degree is worth it no matter where they go, what they study, or how much they borrow. Colleges respond accordingly by raising tuition.
Even after adjusting for inflation, net tuition (the amount paid after scholarships) has roughly doubled in the last 30 years. According to economists Grey Gordon and Aaron Hedlund, over 50 percent of this rise in tuition is explained by “increased student borrowing facilitated by expansions in financial aid.”
But to many, taking out student loans still seems like a risk that is guaranteed to pay off. "Buyers see that everyone else is taking on mounds of debt, and so are more comfortable when they do so themselves; besides, for a generation, the value of what they're buying has gone up steadily. What could go wrong?" writes Glenn Reynolds, author of The Higher Education Bubble, in the Washington Examiner. "Everything continues smoothly until, at some point, it doesn't."
Many graduates find that their post-college careers are not what they expected. "The New York Federal Reserve Bank says about 40% of recent college graduates are 'underemployed,' [working in jobs that don’t typically require a college degree] often for a long time," wrote economists Richard Vedder and Justin Strehle in the Wall Street Journal. "They sometimes resort to taking jobs as Uber drivers or baristas." According to their analysis, college tuition and fees rose 74 percent (after inflation) from 2000 to 2016, where the earnings differential between high school and four-year college graduates fell 10 percent.
A new report by Judith Scott-Clayton at the Brookings Institution also illustrates the financial disaster ahead for many of these former students, estimating that 40 percent of students who took out loans in 2004 may default in 2023.
With such a large supply of underemployed college graduates, businesses have also started requiring four-year degrees for jobs that typically have not required the skills of college , using it as a mechanism to filter applicants. This practice (called "degree inflation") in turn makes it harder for workers without a degree to find a fulfilling career. Even if they have significant hard skills (e.g., computer programming, construction experience) or soft skills (e.g., presentation ability, organization), they may never make it past the résumé screening algorithm without a degree.
A recent report, "Dismissed by Degrees," published by Accenture, Grads of Life, and Harvard Business School, examines the practice of degree inflation and reveals some alarming trends. According to the report, degree inflation could affect more than six million jobs - primarily middle-skills jobs that are a key career entry point for non-degree-holders, which comprise two-thirds of the American workforce.
For example, the report found that 67 percent of job postings for production worker supervisors require a four-year college degree, even though only 16 percent of current supervisors have a degree. This “degree gap” means that many middle-skills workers are locked out of occupations that they are qualified for simply because they didn’t attend college for four years.
Degree inflation isn’t always an unconscious decision by companies either. In a survey, the authors of the report asked employers if they “reject some individuals who have the skills and experience to be successful in a middle-skills job because they don’t meet the requirement of having a four-year degree.” Sixty-one percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed.
Some organizations have recognized this growing problem and have taken direct action to solve it. The Dismissed by Degrees report highlights CVS as a case study in how in-house training and a commitment to talent development can result in higher retention rates and fulfilling careers. “We considered the idea of requiring a college degree for management positions on and off over the years, but decided it’s not in our best interest,” said Ernie Dupont, CVS’ Senior Director of Workforce Initiatives. “Frankly, we think it closes down a stream of potential candidates that are well qualified or in some cases, exhibit potential.”
Other states have invested heavily in dedicated apprenticeship programs to give potential workers another pathway to a rewarding career. The Center for American Progress highlights several states that are leading the way in partnering with the Department of Labor, colleges, and businesses in order to provide training programs that result in actual employment. There are millions of non-graduates looking for employment who are already qualified or could easily be qualified if they are given the chance.
But why is work so important in the first place? It’s because work is more than just a way to pay the bills. Rather, work is a deep, powerful driver of satisfaction in our lives. God created us to work, and Jesus references the value of good work in many parables. God has given each of us specific earthly talents, and he expects us to use them to glorify Him.
In Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller describes how all earthly work can fulfill God's calling for our lives, even if it is not explicitly faith-based. "Our daily work can be a calling only if it is reconceived as God’s assignment to serve others," writes Keller. Elsewhere, he describes "work—and lots of it" as "an indispensable component in a meaningful human life." That's true for all of us, whether we graduated from college or not.
Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, wrote about this idea in a 2013 New York Times column. "[A]ccording to the General Social Survey, nearly three-quarters of Americans wouldn’t quit their jobs even if a financial windfall enabled them to live in luxury for the rest of their lives," said Brooks. "Those with the least education, the lowest incomes and the least prestigious jobs were actually most likely to say they would keep working, while elites were more likely to say they would take the money and run." When we look at jobs as an opportunity to glorify God through stewarding our talents rather than as a necessary evil to support our lifestyles, we are rewarded with a powerful sense of purpose and achievement. This allows us to develop our God-given skills and make a difference in this world.
There are millions of students who went to college thinking it was their ticket to fulfilling work, only to find out later that it may not have been the best choice. As a society, we have a responsibility to encourage education and expand accessibility for those who want to attend but can't afford tuition. However, we also have a responsibility to affirm those who decide that college is not for them (either before attending or after dropping out) and ensure that they too have ample opportunities to grow professionally.
-Daniel Huizinga is an education consultant and columnist in Washington, DC.