The Great Lie of Higher Education

In recent higher education news, President Biden has recommended that the federal government underwrite free community college for all U.S. students. As reported by Inside Higher Ed, his American Families Plan would allocate $109 billion for two years of free community college “so that every student has the ability to obtain a degree or certificate.” Unfortunately, the reality is that most students attending two-year programs drop out before completing even an associate degree. These students do not go on to earn a bachelor’s degree, and although 80% of community college freshmen aspire to do so, fewer than 1/6 of them reach their goal according to a May 25th article in the New York Times.

The college-for-all rallying cry has gone bust in recent years for good reason. Although equitable access is a noble goal, economic realities must be considered. Far too few students have been prepared to calculate the return-on-investment of a college degree, as delinquent and defaulted loans in America’s $1.7 trillion of student debt will attest. Those fortunate enough to position themselves to become college graduates need to start exploring careers prior to choosing majors and committing themselves to student indebtedness. By the time unprepared students discover that their degree did not prepare them for the work world, it’s too late. They may be better educated, but not every degree directly prepares students for viable employment.

This misalignment between degrees and career skills contributes to millions of university graduates becoming underemployed. For financial reasons, they frequently have to accept positions that do not require the education they received. When income is not commensurate with what they need to pay back student loans, building the type of future they’d hoped college would bring falls out of reach. This is the great lie of higher education: that any degree will bring the elusive American dream within reach.

U.S. society has evolved over the past several decades to the point that a university degree is now seen by some people as a panacea, guaranteeing access to high salaries and increased social status. However, with rising tuition costs, a shifting job market, and an oversaturation of many academic majors in the workforce, this perspective is pure myth. The ever-evolving shifts over the past several decades have led to more and more students attending some form of higher education. The National Center for Education Statistic’s Condition of Education Report revealed that the overall college enrollment rate for 18- to 24-year-olds increased from 35% in 2000 to 41% in 2018. In 1960, when considering all jobs in the American economy, approximately 20% required a four-year degree or higher, 20% were technical jobs requiring skill training, and 60% were classified as unskilled. The questions that U.S.  policy makers need to be asking themselves are two-fold. (1) What is the right percentage of college graduates needed to meet the labor market demands of tomorrow? And (2) How best can higher education incentives provide that human capital in the most equitable, effective way?

As we know, some percentage of that need will be middle-skilled jobs requiring technical skills or training at the credential or associate degree level. Perhaps this explains Biden’s proposal, but only partly. A four-year degree has the benefit of perceived upward mobility, but when student debt cripples that momentum the reality can be far from ideal. Many students today have ineffectively spent time and money to get degrees that they may not have required at all for the careers where they landed. The actual ratio of jobs in the American economy requiring a university degree should be calculated—and many of these career paths will require only a one-year certificate or two-year degree. The great news is that skilled technicians find themselves in great demand these days, especially in areas as plumbing, electrical, and other specialized types of labor.

Rhetoric invoking the American dream encourages university education. However, the number of university-trained workers increasing will not scale demand for their services in the job market. Those with college-for-all mentalities mask or disavow labor market realities. The federal commitment to increased CTE—Career and Technical Education— in recent years will no doubt support credential attainment for students at varying education levels. This is a positive, but we must guard against dissuading those who could truly compete to aspire to attain academic credentials. Compare income levels for electricians versus  business managers. The average annual income for electricians is $66,500, while business managers average$61,153. The notion that students will make more money with a college education is simply not accurate. One report showed that 25% of associate degree holders earn more than $68,000 annually, and 25% of bachelor’s degree holders earned less than $34,000. In the coming economy, a university degree will not ensure a path towards financial security.

Because emerging technologies in every industry will require a combination of academic knowledge and technical ability, the time is now for the U.S.  to ensure students carefully measure career readiness as part of the university equation. This exploration process in interest and skills evaluations should begin no later than 10th grade, long before college applications are due for those who have determined their pathway will require such efforts. Students should be offered professional support to understand the job market, and to reckon with the income ranges those pathways realistically offer. While money isn’t everything, it is an inescapable factor in building the futures most hope for: owning a home, developing a partnership or marriage, and starting a family and/or business.

With alignment between market demand and student strategy, a position nearer to the top of the pay scale can come within closer reach for aspiring young people. Success in today’s evolving economy will require acquiring the knowledge and skills for in-demand occupations. The great lie of higher education urgently requires truth-tellers to step up and be heard. Simply getting any degree for its own sake will not bring the elusive American dream within reach but securing a competitive advantage in the job market without six-figure debt is entirely possible with appropriate information and training.