That college degree is no longer the only route to the American Dream

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For decades, a college education was the “golden ticket” to the American Dream, leading to higher lifetime earnings and better job security.

To this point, the average college graduate earns a total of $2.8 million over their career, compared to $1.6 million (a 70% difference) for their high school graduate peers, according to the report a 2021 study by Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.

However, as today’s businesses demand more technological skills and higher education becomes more expensive, some liberal arts graduates are disappointed that the college dividend they expected from all the money spent has become elusive.

That dividend is likely to continue to fall as employers realize that lacking a qualification from a four-year college doesn’t mean a person lacks the skills, drive, or ambition needed to succeed in the workplace.

The result is a decade of declining college enrollments, suggesting that millions of Americans are now either unwilling or unable to pay the high price that comes with a college degree. A recent Harris poll found that 51% of all US adults say the costs associated with higher education have impacted their ability to pursue an education after high school.

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While this may have a negative impact on some higher education institutions, this trend could be a boon for expanding economic and social mobility.

Colleges are traditionally valued for their research and exclusivity, not for their return on investment or the employability of their students. Even colleges that offer excellent employment opportunities for their STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) graduates may not achieve a similar ROI for their liberal arts students.

Higher education is understandably reluctant to apply a crude economic measure like return on investment to its broader social benefits.

There is no denying, however, that the proliferation of inferior, expensive degrees has diluted the value of higher education for some, contributed to racial disparities in wealth, and challenged the previously unassailable societal goal of ever-expanding participation in higher education.

A path to the American Dream that was once a source of hope for so many is no longer as clear as it once was.

Complicating this picture is the fact that many employers have long found it convenient to use a college degree as a gating requirement, even for low-skilled jobs, to make resume screening more efficient.

Positions previously occupied by non-academics are almost always filled by academics.

In 2000, 18% of technicians had a bachelor’s degree, compared to 36% in 2019. Police and firefighter jobs saw a 13% increase in the likelihood of having a bachelor’s degree. Skills inflation in the job market drives many students to low-quality, but often expensive, colleges just to get a foot in the door.

However, changes are coming that will offer some relief to students looking to enter the job market more cheaply.

The pressure on companies from the pandemic and the Great Retirement has already prompted some employers to reconsider how they evaluate applicants. Businesses have begun to seek new or previously overlooked sources of talent, including those without a college degree.

For example, Google creates opportunities for non-traditional talent through a career certification program that positions participating talent for jobs through an employer consortium of more than 150 companies, including Deloitte, SAP, Verizon, Walmart and Google itself.

The truth is that most jobs don’t actually require a college degree, but they do require skills – both technical knowledge and so-called “soft skills” needed to connect with customers and employees.

There are many ways to give people the skills they need to be successful in the workplace, aside from four – or even two – years of college and the debt that comes with it.

Promise of a competence-oriented education

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One of the most promising approaches is competency-based education.

Online and in-person short courses can certify the skills employers need in six months or less at little or no cost to the student. Revolutionary efforts are being made at innovative educational institutions such as Dallas College, Miami Dade College and Western Governors University to define and validate individual skills in collaboration with a wide spectrum of employers, so that qualification for work can be either separate or combined can be done with earning a college degree.

The organization I work for, the Milken Center for Advancing the American Dream, recently partnered with Coursera to offer 200,000 scholarships for free certificates focused on technical and professional skills through the American Dream Academy.

These scholarships allow students straight out of high school or those looking to increase their earning power to take short courses developed by leading companies like Google, IBM and Meta to gain in-demand technical skills and earn valuable credentials. More than 150 leading companies have already campaigned to have these certifications recognized as qualifications that lead to well-paying jobs.

According to Opportunity@Work, there are more than 77 million American workers without a college degree. As many as 30 million of these workers have the skills needed for higher-paying jobs but are held back by degree requirements.

The acceptance and recognition of alternative educational pathways to employment can play a critical role in expanding access to the American Dream, sustaining America’s competitiveness, and creating the diverse workforce needed for tomorrow.

By Kerry Healey, PhD. Healey is President of the Milken Center for Advancing the American Dream. She was previously President of Babson College and Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts.

https://www.cnbc.com/2022/05/12/that-college-degree-is-no-longer-the-only-path-to-the-american-dream.html That college degree is no longer the only route to the American Dream

Gary B. Graves

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