Many contemporary discussions on attending college seem to start with the premise that only folks with bachelor’s degrees have a clear path to good, paying jobs and further economic opportunity.
This unwarranted assumption gives inflated value to a bachelor’s degree, adds to many costs, and leads individuals to think that nothing less can yield as good—or almost as good—an outcome as that degree.
This single-minded focus on the value of four-year degrees in relation to career success—I think of it as “credential inflation”—obscures two other proven education pathways to the nearly sixty-five million existing good jobs.
That those other paths exist, and are viable and valuable, is detailed in a pair of recent analyses by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce and the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.
What is a good job and what are these pathways?
A good job pays at least $35,000 annually ($17 per hour for a full-time job) for those aged twenty-five to forty-four and $45,000 ($22 per hour) for those in the forty-five to sixty-four range, at a time when American median earnings were $65,000 (2016). Those earning six figures may not view such jobs as “good” but a great many people manage to get by, even to thrive, with them. In any case, that’s the definition these analyses used!
First, the high school pathway, which includes those with a high school diploma or less and leads to 20 percent of good jobs as defined above. Workers who follow that path often advance to roles as managers and supervisors in fields like construction, manufacturing, food services, and office support.
Second, the middle skills pathway—aimed at 24 percent of 2016’s good jobs—embraces those with more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree—e.g., holders of associate’s degrees or employee certificates. These “certified value” employees have jobs that span skilled services and a host of blue collar fields, including healthcare technicians, surveying and mapping technicians, firefighters, and law enforcement.
Finally, the bachelor’s degree pathway assumes at least a four-year degree and points toward 56 percent of today’s good jobs. It includes professional and technical jobs and “frontier jobs” deploying new technologies like robot integration and search engine optimization. Not until 2008 did these workers hold more good jobs than those without a degree, initiating the ascent of the “college economy.”
From 1991 to 2016, bachelor’s degree pathway jobs doubled, from eighteen to thirty-six million. Middle skills jobs grew by three million. High school jobs decreased by two million. Yet employment opportunities for those following the high school pathway have remained stable, as the number of high school pathway workers moving to other pathways was greater than the number of jobs lost in the high school pathway.
The Cleveland Fed’s analysts (with help from colleagues in Atlanta and Philadelphia) examined labor market differences for those with and without bachelor’s degrees in 121 metro areas where jobs employed 103.5 million workers, i.e., 73 percent of total U.S. employment in 2017. Almost 22 percent of these were “opportunity jobs,” i.e. positions filled by people without degrees who were paid at least the national annual median wage of nearly $37,000 (adjusted for regional differences).
These analysts also acquired data from Burning Glass Technologies, which tracks labor market data and talent, to understand the level of education that employers seek when filling open positions. Among the largest twenty-five livelihoods, at least nine—led by several occupations in health care and the skilled trades—are fully accessible to those without a four-year degree. For the other sixteen occupations, there was no employer consensus regarding the education credentials needed for those jobs.
The Fed analysts conjecture that this lack of consensus is due largely to labor market supply rather than the work’s true educational requirements. An employer’s requirement of a college degree may itself be a form of credential inflation, “an unnecessary barrier for [some] workers in some places relative to others.” A more skills based—or supply side—approach to hiring would make far more sense, although it’s understood that some employers treat education credentials as “signals” of character traits that they value (e.g. persistence), even if there’s no direct relationship between what’s actually learned and what the job actually demands.
Fed analysts say that a key challenge for both employers and job seekers is pairing individuals without bachelor’s degrees to good jobs. This matching process requires schools, colleges, and placement organizations to build strong employer relationships so that potential workers get the right first job.
Ryan Craig, author of A New U: Faster and Cheaper Alternatives to College, describes the emergence of “a new set of intermediaries [called] last mile programs” that help individuals—with or without degrees—find jobs and assist with this matching process. Such intermediaries take many forms—e.g., apprenticeships, boot camps, income share programs, and staffing and placement models.
In sum, finding good paying jobs doesn’t necessarily require college degrees. There are other “opportunity rich” employment options for those without a bachelor’s degree that move individuals into the middle class and into careers worth having.