One of the many tough lessons from the Great Recession is that reaching middle age without a bachelor’s degree can be devastating. Degree holders weather economic storms far better than their counterparts. They are less likely to lose their jobs and quicker to find new ones. Throughout the recession, the unemployment rate for individuals with only a high school diploma was twice that of bachelor degree holders. College graduates are also better positioned to reap the rewards that come with economic growth. They earn substantially more money, enjoy better working conditions, and their jobs are more secure. Even though recent graduates struggle early on in the labor market, the college premium only grows stronger over time. New research on rising mortality rates among middle age, non-college educated whites only adds to the avalanche of data on the positive correlations between educational level and personal wellbeing. A college degree is far from the ticket to the middle-class it once was, but lack of one is rapidly becoming a guarantee of personal and economic hardship.
The increasingly divergent experience of those with and without college degrees has lent a new urgency to long-standing efforts to grow the number of Americans with bachelor’s degrees. But despite rising enrollments in higher education over the last three decades, and enormous investments in improving college access and completion, our bachelor degree attainment rate has only increased by a few percentage points. In 2013, just over 33 percent of all Americans had a bachelor’s degree, compared to 29 percent in 2000. While the reasons are complex, one of them is that a bachelor’s degree takes a long time to earn and is expensive. Many students cannot afford to spend four years (or more) in school and need postsecondary credentials that can help them transition quickly into the labor market to support themselves and their families. Those students will have a particularly hard time completing a bachelor’s degree.
Today, I released a paper titled Flipping the Paradigm: Why We Need Training-based Pathways to the Bachelor’s Degree and How to Build Them that explains how our education policies have created a “Catch-22” for students who need to start their careers before they complete a four-year degree. These students can find higher education programs that will train them for specific occupations but they will have a hard time getting that learning to count toward a bachelor’s degree. And without a bachelor’s degree, they will struggle to advance in their careers and will be more vulnerable during economic downturns. It is one of the many ironies of our higher education system that career training is considered deeply problematic when it takes place below the bachelor’s degree level, but completely appropriate at the postgraduate level – in master or doctoral degree programs or in the professional schools. In fact, in the United States high quality training is increasingly an activity reserved for those who have the time and resources to complete a four-year degree first.
This two-tier system, in which career training is widely available but disarticulated and of dubious quality at the lower end of our education spectrum, but highly organized and articulated at the higher end, is not an accident. It stems from outdated conceptions of what a four-year degree must include, the manner (and sequence) in which students must learn those things, and a host of unintended consequences from policy changes made to the Higher Education Act almost forty years ago. But none of these barriers are inevitable or irreversible. In Flipping the Paradigm, I explain how a number of states and institutions are leading the way in building pathways to four-year degrees that start with a career-training program. Some are creating “upside-down degrees” that put two years of general education on top of two years of technical training. Others are developing new “applied” bachelor’s degrees that enable students to build on, and broaden, their technical expertise. I also include a set of concrete reforms to federal and state education policies that would make it easier for institutions to meet the needs of students seeking career education opportunities and four-year degrees.
A higher education system in which students can start their journey to a four-year degree and beyond with high quality training in a specific occupation would be a great help to many people. As the data continues to mount on the difficulties non-college graduates face navigating today’s tough economy, we need to rethink and reengineer how students can advance toward a bachelor’s degree and beyond. That will mean challenging some traditional notions about the difference between “education” and “training” – an artificial distinction that has hampered efforts to meet the needs of diverse learners. Students are already figuring out that they need a combination of practical skills and general knowledge, and that one does not come at the expense of the other. Now we just need our higher education policies to catch up.