How America Started Saying Goodbye to College Degrees

BAround 2010, just after the financial crash wreaked havoc on the economy, Americans’ relentless faith in higher education began to falter. In 2011, more than half of college graduates were unemployed or underemployed. While a bachelor’s degree was a golden ticket for some, it wasn’t much for many others.

The economy rallied and popular conversation ebbed, only to be revived by the epic aftermath of a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic. This time the college degree compensation was more profound. It can also be more durable.

In 2019, in a poll by Populace, a nonpartisan think tank that asks respondents each year for answers to the question “What is the purpose of education?”, Americans ranked it 47th out of 57 in 2022 .

“The college’s value proposition may not be what it used to be,” says Todd Rose, co-founder of Populace and author of Collective Illusions: Conformity, complicity, and the science of why we make bad decisions.

He realizes the data doesn’t say it not valuable, but a prioritization of careers, and the pursuit of meaningful work has surpassed this. People want it to be on the menu but not the menu.

“They want it to be an option, but not the point,” Rose explains. “They want more choices, they want their kids to have a wider range of outcomes.”

In 2009, 70% of college graduates enrolled in college. In 2021, that number was 61.8%, about the same as it was in 1994. What happened?

In the Populace study, for the fourth consecutive year, “students develop practical, tangible skills” such as managing one’s finances and preparing meals was the number one skill. Other high-level actions included critical thinking to solve problems and make decisions and demonstrate character. Preparing for a Career Sixth, up from 27th before the pandemic.

We’ve gone from striving for the American Dream to striving for more doing, perhaps because doing different things helps us better understand what kind of work we want to do. College is a necessary and valuable path for many careers; It can help learners expand their worlds and try different identities within them. It can be transformative for individuals and families, especially first-generation college students. And it should go without saying that elementary and secondary education prepares all students for the possibility of going to college.

But just like not everyone is made to be a pilot or a plumber, not everyone has to study for two or four years. Students’ interests vary widely, and their thriving requires more appreciation from all of us that human variation is a trait, not a flaw. We got 70% through social engineering, not choice. Campaigns that touted higher education as an opportunity to work “smart” instead of “hard,” with images of a dirty plumber next to a shiny college grad, failed to take into account the tuition and time and skills required to complete a college degree are .

There are also structural reasons for our nation’s newfound hunger for skills. An unusually tight job market means employers are less inclined to require degrees. What started the technology – remember PayPal’s Peter Thiel told everyone to drop out of college and become a billionaire like him? — has now expanded into the public sector, with Pennsylvania becoming the latest state to drop college degree requirements for most state jobs. The Harvard Business Review last year estimated that in the next five years 1.4 million jobs will be available for workers without a college degree (“Jobs don’t require four-year college degrees. Employers do,” the report states, noting that employers change their minds. Even Barack Obama is tweet about “unnecessary university degrees”. Just under two-thirds of Americans don’t have a bachelor’s degree, and many careers don’t require one.

The alternatives to learning and training available today are far more plentiful than they used to be. Before the pandemic, Coursera added about two million new learners each quarter; since the pandemic, that has increased to five million per quarter, with 113 million registered learners. This platform offers courses in everything from computer science to the mysteries of happiness; skills and academic training that companies can offer their employees; and degree. According to internal Google search data, by 2022 over 50% of college degrees will be in non-traditional majors.

“Degrees are just part of the landscape,” says Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, which educates 4,000 students on its residential campus and 181,000 online. “There’s a wider range of providers and credentials now.”

Too many Americans cannot afford the time it takes to graduate or the astronomical price to do so. Affordability and employment are the top priorities for Americans when it comes to higher education.

The US mistake was not to glorify higher education, which is a noble aspiration, but to stigmatize the alternatives. In Germany and Switzerland, between half and almost two-thirds of students complete vocational training. Learning in the classroom does not end, but changes.

If we want to focus on helping young people prepare for meaningful work, we don’t have to declare college degrees dead. Colleges are excellent at developing many of the power skills (formerly known as “soft skills”) that employers want to hire for: including analytical thinking, active learning, and complex problem solving. Graduates advance science and build knowledge. And the data continues to show that college graduates earn more, are employed at higher rates, and tend to have a stronger sense of identity than those with only a high school degree. A 2016 Pew Research Center report found that 77% of workers with a postgraduate degree and 60% of workers with a bachelor’s degree believe their work gives them a sense of identity, compared to just 38% those with only a high school diploma or less.

Identity and purpose are not goals to be scoffed at in a moment in history when despair and depression seem to be the cloak we all too often wear. But the reality is there are many ways to develop identity and purpose, including a college degree, and many paths to good income, especially when the fastest growing jobs require specialized expertise (vaccine specialist, diversity and inclusion manager, consumer marketing) . Manager).

While the purpose of a degree isn’t just to prepare for work, at the end of four years and tens of thousands of dollars spent, it’s imperative that students find sustainable work. Too many don’t make it through and then don’t find a good job.

A staggering 38% of students who enter college or university do not graduate, leaving them in debt and without a degree. The main reasons are cost, stress and uncertainty. One-fifth of college students are parents, and around 40% work, making it difficult to balance work and study. Many people will still flock to universities, but these universities can certainly provide better support for those who are starting a degree in completing it. They could also offer a wider range of credentials and in a more compressed time frame.

Rose also argues that the data showing better income and life satisfaction may be lagging behind. “Sometimes there’s a pretty important liminal event that changes things quite fundamentally, either what people want or what the value proposition of the thing is.” He believes the liminal event was Covid and that wanting to prepare more carefully for it is a meaningful one Finding and securing work is a fundamental shift in values ​​that will not abate with the labor market.

The higher education landscape can change, as can the economy. Periods of high unemployment were usually associated with higher enrollments in higher educational institutions. According to The Common App, the most common way US students try to get into college, the number of applicants for 2023 is up 20% compared to 2019.

But what COVID offered us, beyond a sometimes unsatisfactory glimpse into the black box of education, was a rethinking of priorities. Why an apprenticeship? When it comes to preparing for meaningful work and life, an arms race toward college that only the elite can afford is not a sustainable way forward. Young people are facing an unprecedented mental health crisis that is the result of a global pandemic, a burning planet and the ubiquity of mind-blurring technology. We should offer them a wider range of opportunities and avenues to realize their future selves – including, but not laudably, college degrees.

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