Americans seem to want to believe a four-year college degree is the great equalizer, the silver bullet to ensure young people of any background can access the best opportunities and move seamlessly from adolescence to adulthood. And Massachusetts residents may be the least likely in the country to question whether college is worth it. More than half of us have at least an associate’s degree, tops in the nation. A lot of us work in higher education, too — more than 125,000, according to the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, exceeding a dozen of our largest private sector companies combined. This is also the only state where more students attend private colleges than public ones.
In college’s favor is that familiar statistic: A bachelor’s degree yields its holder an average of $1 million more over a working life than a high school diploma. But as college debt increases exponentially and wages remain stagnant, at least one St. Louis Federal Reserve report suggests that student loans now eat up much of the extra income produced by getting a degree. This financial risk raises the question of whether the return on investment is worth it. That applies to people of all backgrounds and income levels. While students from middle- and low-income families in the US who go to college have significantly higher debt burdens and greater rates of delinquency and default, such issues now also affect a majority of families with incomes in the top 10 percent. Some 60 percent of college graduates from high-income families have student loans, double the rate of 20 years ago.
In the face of this debt-driven uncertainty, here’s the question we should be asking: Is a four-year degree the only path to success, to a good job and a family-sustaining wage?
In Massachusetts, our density of brand-name private liberal arts colleges seems to have us convinced that a bachelor’s degree lets kids shoot up the socioeconomic ladder. In 2016-2017, more than 73 percent of graduating seniors in Massachusetts went on to a two- or four-year college (the national average was about 67 percent), with just over half attending four-year schools. Pursuing a bachelor’s degree has come to represent the closest thing parents have to a guarantee that their kids will achieve a successful and stable future. As a society, we have made enormous efforts to increase the number of people who graduate from college. But we may have inadvertently created a system that overemphasizes one path to success.
Consider that 40 percent of full-time undergraduates drop out without finishing a degree. Such a large number should trigger a reexamination of college as the ideal path to prosperity. The way forward for many people requires skill development and talent identification in K-12 education. In some other states, nonprofit organizations partner with private sector employers to create apprentice learning opportunities for kids as young as middle school students. Some school districts start educating kids about different kinds of jobs in kindergarten. These students are gaining meaningful opportunities to explore careers, and exposure to a variety of professional environments. We also need to enhance all forms of postsecondary education and training, to show that equity, opportunity, and personal growth aren’t limited to those who go from high school straight to college.
Other states are dedicating tremendous energy and innovation to develop multiple pathways to bright futures. By integrating K-12 education, workforce development, and college, they are helping younger students explore their skills, talents, and abilities in relation to career pathways. Colorado has boosted the number of school counselors, while also modernizing a youth apprenticeship program. Wisconsin established career pathways to give students work-based learning opportunities, and receive a high school diploma with at least one industry-recognized credential.
In our region, companies such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Bank of America, and Hasbro are developing diverse talent pipelines, moving away from prestige-based hiring, and have stopped using a bachelor’s degree as a requirement for entry-level positions.
These companies have left behind the idea that a bachelor’s degree is the only way to ensure rewards for people with grit and the ability to work hard. Companies such as IBM, another large employer in our region, now have locations where more than one-third of employees do not possess four-year degrees. They are purposefully creating new positions in cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, cognitive business, and data science that value relevant skills, not solely degrees.
As the nature of work evolves, conventional wisdom about education and career goals should evolve as well. Massachusetts and neighboring states in New England are beginning to recognize this reality by promoting early college, designating Innovation Pathways, and expanding high school internships through programs such as PrepareRI from Skills for Rhode Island’s Future and the Massachusetts Work-Based Learning Plan. If the goal of the Massachusetts public K-12 education system is to prepare all students for success after high school, then the question cannot be “is college worth it?” The question must be: How do we promote, validate, and strengthen all the other pathways to success?