Is a 4-Year Degree for Everyone?

Posted by Marie Murphy on June 7, 2018

In recent years, obtaining a college diploma has become the standard for entering the workforce. However, multiple competing forces within both the education and job market have begun to render this "standard" down to an option for some, but not all.

Recently, the New York Times featured a study on the return on investment of college degrees across different demographics in the United States. The conclusion of those results included that for some people, the economic benefit is not always evident.1 In conjunction with the decline in undergraduate enrollment, down for the sixth year in a row, the value of a four year degree may be lowering.2

While the cost of four-year degree programs rises, leaving many in debt, another phenomenon is hurting the economy and labor market, too. The middle skills workforce, meaning those working in positions that require more education and training than a high school diploma, but less than a four year degree, is lacking workers. The result? A middle skills gap; the phenomenon wherein employers cannot find workers with the skills they need for today's jobs, coupled with discouraged workers who don't have the skills to secure open positions. When combined with the rising cost of college, the economic result is a student debt-riddled job market missing a crucial workforce.

Together they have led to major detriments in hiring for the skilled trades industry, healthcare, veterinary, retail, and other prominent middle-skilled industries. Slowly coming to the forefront of this conversation is the idea that alternatives like stackable credentials, skills training, and apprenticeships may be exactly what this job market needs. Recognizing this, the Department of Labor recently announced an effort to expand and incentivize apprenticeship programs.3 A proven practice that not only provides people with the skills they need to enter a trade or occupation, but also helps employer's build a steady talent pipeline.

Furthermore, the time to enter this middle skills job market is now. Given the gap, qualified workers within the middle skills occupations are earning high wages- without previously needing to invest in the time or financial burden of a four year degree program. In fact, according to a recent article by the Hechinger Report, there are "30 million jobs in the United States that pay an average of $55,000 per year [and] don't require bachelor's degrees."4 What these positions do require, however, is some sort of credential and/or skills training. Skills training and certifications do require both education and time, but significantly less than a four year degree.

An additional benefit of such alternative credentials is their ability to be stacked with other credentials at any point in a person's career while they are still working. The flexibility and "hybrid" approach to post-secondary education and training has become crucial for the modern learner who may not have recently graduated high school, but rather is a working individual who needs new skills to adapt to shifting job duties.5 This nontraditional learner is part of a growing cohort of the student population that needs to be addressed.

Ultimately, while there is a need for four year degrees, there is also a growing need for skills certifications and credentials to meet the demand of the middle skills job market.

Sources: (1) New York Times (2) NPR (3) Inside Sources (4) Hechinger Report (5) Education Dive
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