Is college worth it? What the research shows

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How one skills based trade program is disrupting traditional education

Ben Kirkhoff, a high school senior at Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul, Minnesota, knows that a four-year college degree isn’t for him.

Even though his parents have a college savings account for him, he said money is still a factor. “I don’t want to put myself and my family in a lot of debt.”

Instead, Kirkhoff, who is 17, will attend Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount, Minnesota, next fall to become an electrician. The two-year program feeds into an apprenticeship and then a full-time position. “I’ll have a job right out of college and I know I’ll have a lot of job opportunities moving forward,” he said.

His parents support his decision to pursue a certification in a skilled trade rather than get a bachelor’s degree, he said.

Although Kirkhoff is the only one of his friends who decided against a four-year school next year, more high school students nationwide are questioning the value of college.

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For decades, research showed that earning a degree is almost always worthwhile.

Bachelor’s degree holders generally earn 75% more than those with just a high school diploma, according to “The College Payoff,” a report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce — and the higher the level of educational attainment, the larger the payoff.

Finishing college puts workers on track to earn a median of $2.8 million over their lifetimes, compared with $1.6 million if they only had a high school diploma, the report found. 

Most high-paid jobs still require a college degree

A growing number of companies, including many in tech, are dropping degree requirements for middle-skill and even higher-skill roles. In his State of the Union address last month, President Joe Biden said some new jobs are “paying an average of $130,000 a year, and many do not require a college degree.”

“Good luck” finding those roles, said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

“Jobs for people without college degrees that pay over $130,000 a year make up 1% of the American economy.”

Over time, occupations as a whole are steadily requiring more education, according to another upcoming report by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce. And the fastest-growing industries, such as computer and data processing, still require workers with disproportionately higher education levels compared with industries that have not grown as quickly.

Students from underserved communities are looking at education through a practical lens.

Dan Fisher

president and CEO of ECMC Group

In 1983, only 28% of jobs required any postsecondary education and training beyond high school. By 2021, that had jumped to 68%, the report also found. In another decade, it will climb to 72%.

To be sure, the recently enacted infrastructure law will create more jobs for workers with a high school diploma or less. According to the White House, the legislation will add as many as 1.5 million jobs a year for the next 10 years. “And they will be good jobs but after that, those jobs may be gone,” Carnevale said.

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Students assess education ‘through a practical lens’

Most Americans still agree that a college education is worthwhile when it comes to career goals and advancement. However, only half think the economic benefits outweigh the costs, according to a separate report by Public Agenda, USA Today and Hidden Common Ground — and young adults are particularly skeptical.

The rising cost of college and ballooning student loan balances have played a large role in changing views about the higher education system, which many think is rigged to benefit the wealthy, the report found. 

Only 45% of students from low-income, first-generation or minority backgrounds believe education after high school is necessary, according to a study by ECMC Group.

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High schoolers are putting more emphasis on career training and post-college employment, the nonprofit found after polling more than 5,000 high school students six times since February 2020.

“Students from underserved communities are looking at education through a practical lens,” said Dan Fisher, president and CEO of ECMC Group. “They want to know what the cost is, how they’re going to pay, how they will get through everyday life and whether there’s a job at the end of the road.”

More than half, or 53%, are open to an alternative path, and nearly 60% believe they can be successful without a degree.

Yet most said they feel pressure — mainly from their parents, community and internally — to go to a four-year school, even though community college or career and technical training may make more sense.

Ulrich Baumgarten | Ulrich Baumgarten | Getty Images

In part, there is a bias against vocational school that has been difficult to overcome, Fisher said. “We really need to destigmatize the idea and career and technical training is a lesser form of post-secondary education.”

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Historically, interest in alternative career and technical training programs spikes during economic downturns, Carnevale said. Still, he advises students to find some path to higher education, whether through community college or an employer-sponsored tuition reimbursement plan.

Getting a degree offers the best shot at landing in the middle class, Carnevale said. “You have to figure out a strategy.”

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