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College is one way to get ahead. It shouldn't be the only one

"A strong and productive workforce is made up of people from a variety of backgrounds, skills, and experiences—and not just four-year degrees," writes Maria Flynn. (Getty Images)
"A strong and productive workforce is made up of people from a variety of backgrounds, skills, and experiences—and not just four-year degrees," writes Maria Flynn. (Getty Images)

This year, my husband and I joined thousands of parents in dropping their children off at college for the first time. Like many others, we had a lot of worries: how well our daughter would adapt, how well we’d handle the shift to one child at home, and how much debt might end up following our family for decades.

But we also felt optimistic — not just about the opportunities that lay ahead for our kid, but about the lived experience that's taught us the worlds of education and work are more wide open than ever before.

With learners and workers across the country now officially “back to school,” it’s past time we evolve our understanding of how education is defined, and recognize that a strong and productive workforce is comprised of people from a variety of backgrounds, skills and experiences — and not just four-year degrees.

There are now at least 1 million education and training programs after high school

In my own home, “back to school” means my Gen Z child beginning a four-year residential college experience, and my Gen X husband earning his degree in his 50s, from a predominantly online university that specializes in educating working adults.
Across the country, it can mean many more things. Over the past decade, the number of learning pathways has increased dramatically. There are now at least 1 million education and training programs after high school, each offering their own unique credentials, including not only two- and four-year degrees but also certificates, licenses, digital badges and certifications.

The possibilities range from high-quality, vetted programs — like Registered Apprenticeships, which meet strict federal or state guidelines and lead to industry-recognized certifications — to poorly regulated, profit-focused programs. But many of these options can provide students with a more affordable, flexible and accelerated way to learn and prepare for — or advance in — a career.

At a time when Americans still owe nearly $1.75 trillion in college loan debt — a burden that, for many borrowers, won’t be significantly eased by President Biden’s debt relief program — the appeal of a less time-consuming, less-expensive credential is easy to see. And it’s clear that many students who start out seeking a degree determine that the traditional college journey isn’t for them for whatever reason. In recent years, the rate at which full-time, first-time undergraduates leave school in the first year has hovered between 37% and 39% at two-year institutions, and 18% to 19% percent at four-year schools.

In theory, employers agree on the value of skill-based credentials. According to a recent survey, 81% of employers think they should look at skills rather than degrees while hiring. But when it comes to hiring decisions, employers don’t actually put skills first. More than half of employers believe it is still less risky to hire someone with a college degree. And 65% of Gen Z students fear there is too much risk associated with choosing a non-degree pathway.

The problem may be twofold: Many learners, workers and employers simply may not be aware of the vast array of training and education programs that prepare people for careers. And those who do know about all the options may default to the four-year degree as a benchmark of employability, because they’re overwhelmed by the choices — and don’t know how to determine which ones offer high-quality training and education.

The organization I lead, Jobs for the Future, believes that as a society, we must remove the social stigma, confusion and misapprehension that surround the rapidly expanding array of education and training options that are different from the four-year college experience. The more high-quality options that exist for going “back to school,” the more opportunities there will be for equitable economic advancement.

We need to help all learners understand that there is no single ladder to success, and they have the agency to customize their own educational journeys.

The good news is that, despite the confusion and concerns, change is happening. The U.S. Department of Labor recently designated $113 million in funding toward expanding Registered Apprenticeship for adults and school-aged young people. The bipartisan ISA Student Protection Act of 2022, introduced in the U.S. Senate in July, is a step toward making outcome-based financing, which ties learners’ training costs to their post-program salaries. Even the idea that career-focused training and education must wait until after high school is shifting. In Massachusetts, more students are graduating from high school with associate’s degrees thanks to the increased popularity of dual-enrollment programs, which allow students to earn college credits in high school.

My daughter may be taking a more traditional route in the short term, but in the long term, she’ll have an ever-expanding menu of education and training programs. And I am optimistic about the opportunities and new approaches that await my younger daughter and her peers when they graduate from high school in 2031.

We need to help all learners understand that there is no single ladder to success, and that they have the agency to customize their own educational journeys. And as the labor market continues to change and place greater emphasis on skills development and lifelong learning, so too should we evolve our understanding of how we evaluate and define education.

Follow Cognoscenti on Facebook and Twitter.

Related:

Maria Flynn Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Maria Flynn is president and CEO of Jobs for the Future (JFF).

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