Post-pandemic, the glow is gone from the college degree
Pandemic shock has hit post-secondary education. Since fall 2019, nearly a million fewer students, or 5.1 percent, are enrolled in higher education institutions. The fall 2021 freshman class was down 9.2 percent, or 213,400 students, leading higher ed advocates to predict trouble on the horizon.
“The opportunity [young people have] to really invest in their educational future, in their future skills, employability and earnings potential … is potentially slipping away,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “That’s not good for our students and their families.”
But the enrollment decline is not the calamity many might suggest, since college is neither the only — nor inevitably the best — way for young people to prepare for a prosperous future in America.
States and communities should see this upheaval as an opportunity to expand programs that offer young people many career pathways, and innovative K-12 and post-secondary stakeholders are well-positioned to do this.
Three facts argue for creating more career pathways programs:
First, on the supply side, many current Gen Z high schoolers don’t see college through the same rose-colored glasses as prior generations. Four national surveys of 4,255 students between February 2020 and September 2021 by Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC) and VICE Media found fewer than half (48 percent) are considering a four-year college. That’s down 23 percentage points from a high of 72 percent in May 2020. Nearly one-third prefer several one-year-or-less educational experiences to a four-year experience.
Second, on the demand side, many employers no longer use a college degree as the gatekeeper credential for jobs. Google, IBM, Apple and Bank of America have shifted from degree-based to skill-based hiring, which evaluates a person’s job readiness by their capabilities and competencies and then matches them to a job. This expands the labor pool, especially of minorities, since the degree hiring bias eliminates 79 percent of Latinos, 68 percent of African Americans, 73 percent of rural residents, and 66 percent of veterans who otherwise would qualify for jobs based on their skills.
Third, supply and demand are disconnected. Employers have inflated the value of college degrees by requiring them for jobs that don’t need them. For example, only 16 percent of production supervisors in 2015 had degrees. Today, 67 percent of those job postings require a degree, even though skill requirements haven’t changed.
How do pathways programs work? They connect education with employers and careers in many ways, including apprenticeships, internships and career and technical education; dual enrollment in high school and post-secondary institutions; career academies; boot camps for acquiring specific knowledge or skills; staffing, placement and other student support services; and income-share agreements, so students pay tuition after getting a good-paying job.
The goal is to ensure that young people — no matter their backgrounds or conditions — have many pathways to jobs and careers that lead to opportunity and flourishing lives. States as different politically as Delaware, California, Colorado, Tennessee and Indiana have created these pathways programs. There are also national organizations working across states, such as the Pathways to Prosperity Network, P-Tech Schools, and the Linked Learning Alliance.
Programs also involve partnerships between K-12 educators and local business and civic partners, such as 3-D Education in Atlanta; YouthForce NOLA in New Orleans; Cristo Rey, a network of 38 Catholic high schools in 23 states; and the Wiseburn School District and Da Vinci Charter School in Los Angeles County offering associate’s or bachelor’s degrees through UCLA Extension and El Camino College or College for America.
Other programs reinvent existing institutions, such as Come to Believe Network, a new two-year commuter community college that provides students with academic support, meals, laptops, tutoring and work experience, leading to an associate degree and jobs with little or no student financial debt. These programs help young people develop an occupational identity and vocational self, including a broader sense of who they can be as adults. They’re also faster and cheaper pathways to jobs and careers than traditional education and training programs.
This new opportunity agenda is different from the vocational education of old, which placed students into different tracks and occupational destinations based on family backgrounds. This agenda doesn’t abandon the college degree option but has a broader understanding of opportunity and fosters opportunity pluralism, offering multiple pathways to jobs and careers that link education, training and credential-earning to the labor market.
College students are missing in action. Many high school students are questioning the value of a college degree. And many employers are turning to skills-based, rather than degree-based, hiring of workers.
These disruptions should be a welcome wake-up call to K-12 and post-secondary stakeholders to expand the choices of pathways that young people can follow to jobs and careers.
Bruno V. Manno is senior adviser for the Walton Family Foundation education program. He is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for Policy. Some of the organizations named in this piece receive support from the Foundation.
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