Four-year colleges aren’t the only tickets to the American Dream
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We are firm believers in the American Dream. Both of us have lived it. One of us grew up in the Jim Crow South. The other immigrated from India as an infant. We grew up in families that struggled to succeed – something that’s become more difficult in recent years for millions of hard-working families.

Our shared priority in Congress is to put more Americans on paths to the American Dream – and that includes the more than 210 million Americans without four-year college degrees. Success should never be limited to those whose dreams and aspirations require the pursuit of a four-year degree. Those who aspire to be electricians, master plumbers, and other careers that do not require a four-year, liberal arts degree should have just as much opportunity to fulfill their dreams and aspirations.


Only 28 percent of people in Illinois have a four-year degree, and only 26 percent of South Carolinians do. Getting a four-year degree is a good investment for those who want one and we should provide opportunities for them to do so through Pell Grants, work-study programs and affordable student loans. But we should make clear through our words and deeds that such is not the only path to success.

Too often, our national conversation about education focuses on four-year degrees to the exclusion of all other paths. The stigma surrounding two-year degree programs, apprenticeships, and other career and technical education bears little resemblance to their records of preparing students for successful and fulfilling careers. More effectively investing in the potential of these initiatives will not only strengthen our workforce, it will empower and stabilize more families in their pursuits of happiness and achievements of the American Dream.

Broadening our national approach to education to include more choices that focuses on preparing students for future careers will be a transition, but it’s an approach we’ve already seen thriving in Switzerland, which has a similar standard of living to our own. In Switzerland students are presented with the full range of career pathways beginning in primary school. They make their choices between a liberal arts education or an apprenticeship path before they graduate from secondary school.

Students in Switzerland choose tracks based on their interest in careers they wish to attain with that training. The success of this Swiss approach is found in a strong tradition of cooperation between educators and businesses to prepare students with the skills they need for good-paying, family-sustaining careers.

While it will take time to reform our system to improve career and technical education, Congress took a major step towards modernizing our career and technical education system by passing the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, which was passed and signed into law earlier this year. This new law reforms America’s career and technical education for the first time in a dozen years by requiring educators to work directly with local businesses to develop curricula that prepare students for in-demand careers. Congress now needs to provide funding for this new law through the annual appropriations process to help millions of American students build middle-class lives.

America has always had multiple paths to success. But too often, our focus on four-year degree programs leads to the perception that one’s worth is predicated upon the length and type of education and training one obtains. Students should be led to appreciate that doctors need plumbers, plumbers need lawyers, lawyers need electricians. We need each other. We must strengthen the full range of education options for our students and make possible the various pathways that can lead to fulfilling careers.  

Let’s face it, a four-year college degree is not required and may not be wanted by everyone. Success in one’s chosen field is the ultimate fulfillment of the American dream.

Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina serves as the Assistant Democratic Leader of the U.S. House and Rep. Raja KrishnamoorthiSubramanian (Raja) Raja KrishnamoorthiDocuments show 'political' nature of Trump COVID ad campaign, lawmakers say Trust and transparency are necessary to make COVID-19 vaccine successful Candymakers meet virtually with lawmakers for annual fly-in, discuss Halloween safety MORE serves on the Committee on Education and the Workforce.