Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is the latest in a string of high-profile policymakers and employers who have questioned whether a college education is vital to success in America. This conversation is certainly worth having, but it’s only going to work if we start to come to grips with the fact that “college” is a very different notion than what many people assume.  It’s time to start defining college in a new way that accurately reflects the needs of today’s students and the realities of the 21st century workforce. 

Today’s ongoing debate often presents education beyond high school as a four-year degree, or nothing. This mirrors the experience of many politicians and corporate leaders at the center of the recent discussions —many of whom entered college fresh out of high school and left with a degree four or five years later.

ADVERTISEMENT
But our current system of postsecondary education is filled with a myriad of high-quality pathways to the American Dream – including technical-training certifications, apprenticeships, employer-based workforce readiness programs, web-developer “boot-camps,” and many more credentials that go far beyond the traditional two- and four-year degrees. It’s not enough to say that these avenues to credential attainment exist; if we’re going to have a meaningful debate about “college,” we must expand our definition to include them.  

This isn’t about semantics.  The fact is, these expanded options reflect what’s really happening in education beyond high school today.  They are important to serving the students in our postsecondary system who are increasingly diverse in age, race, socioeconomic background and family structure.  Defining a “college student” as a 19 -year-old who leaves home to take classes at a sprawling university campus is as antiquated as the notion that college is mostly about educating men of high social class. 

For every 100 college students today, 26 have children, 72 work at least part-time, and more than half do not reside on a college campus. Some 40 percent attend two-year programs, 37 percent attend college part-time, and 25 percent incorporate at least some online learning into their experience. Today’s students are coming into education beyond high school with more complex lives, and that makes providing postsecondary learning opportunities beyond the traditional four-year experience especially important. 

Increasing education options beyond high school also is critical to help close the looming job-attainment gap between white students and students of color.  

According to a 2014 policy brief by the group Young Invincibles, the unemployment rate among African American millennials is more than twice the rate of white millennials – 16 percent compared to 7 percent – and educational attainment is key to addressing this disparity. Furthermore, the report found African American millennials must earn two educational levels higher than their white counterparts in order to have the same employment prospects.   

The same is true for low-income students. The Pew Charitable Trusts' Economic Mobility Project in 2012 showed that students who are born into the bottom of the income spectrum and do not earn a postsecondary credential are four times more likely to stay at the bottom than their peers who complete a credential. 

Employers’ needs are also driving a more varied landscape of education beyond high school. Labor economists project the majority of jobs – 65 percent – will require postsecondary education of some form by 2020. More than a third of those jobs will require a bachelor’s degree. But 30 percent will require other postsecondary pathways, such as industry-specific certifications. And many of the jobs in the latter category pay livable, middle-class wages.  

A 2012 analysis by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, for example, showed there are 29 million jobs that require credentials other than a bachelor’s degree paying $35,000 or more annually. These account for one of every five jobs in the American economy and nearly half of all jobs that pay middle-class wages.  

Today, though, too few workers have the higher education needed to access these opportunities, and at the current pace of increasing postsecondary attainment, the gap between the number of jobs that will require degrees or credentials and the number of people qualified to fill those jobs will only grow. By 2020, the gap is projected to reach 5 million workers. 

Given this, our focus must be on ensuring more students have access to high quality credentials so that we can produce the talent to meet workforce demands, while also addressing the needs of today’s students.  In a country filled with individuals who want to succeed, there’s no reason we should struggle to build a qualified workforce or fail to provide eager learners with opportunities to tap their innate potential.  

Achieving that includes improving the affordability and accessibility of four-year degrees, and better connecting students who desire other types of quality credentials and certificates with avenues for pursuing them. And it starts with embracing the new definition of what it means to be educated beyond high school– and shifting our national conversation accordingly.

Merisotis is president and CEO of Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation, a national foundation dedicated to increasing Americans’ college attainment.