A college degree offers recipients a pathway to many positive life outcomes. Graduates are more likely than non-graduates to gain suitable employment, earn a respectable wage, and be upwardly mobile, especially those whose parents never attained a degree. There are other individual and societal benefits that accrue to degree recipients related to family, health, the economy, and citizenship.
But many current and former students reflecting on their educational experiences conclude that their high school and postsecondary preparation left much to be desired. There is a significant disconnect between what young people expect from education and what their educational experiences actually provide.
What follows is a story in three parts. The first part examines young peoples’ educational version of buyers’ remorse—the disappointment caused by the gap between expectations and reality. The second part offers an alternative framework for students evaluating what to do after high school. The final part illustrates different educational approaches that begin in high school and help young people develop occupational identities and vocational selves, placing them on a pathway to satisfying careers and responsible citizenship.
Part One: Buyer’s Remorse
The Demand Experience: College and K–12 Consumers Speak Out
Almost two-thirds of the nation’s high school graduates enroll immediately in some form of postsecondary education. Most of these students have a clear-cut motive. In 2019, 83.5 percent of entering freshmen, on average, said getting a better job was a “very important” reason for attending college, up from around 70 percent in the year 2000 and an all-time low of 68 percent in 1976. Are these young peoples’ expectations being realized? Mostly no.
According to Strada Education Network and Gallup, in 2017, about a third of college students strongly agreed they’d graduate with the skills and knowledge needed for job market and workplace success. Half strongly agreed their major would lead to a good job, though this varied by major and student demographics. On the other hand, a not-insignificant proportion of individuals would have changed at least one postsecondary decision they made: 36 percent their major; 28 percent their institution; 12 percent their degree. Only 26 percent of graduates strongly agreed their education was relevant to both career and day-to-day life.
Millennials, defined by Pew Research Center as those born between 1981 and 1996, who now number over 72 million, seem particularly disenchanted with the K–12 system. Reflecting on their high school educations, only 39 percent of college attendees think they were prepared to succeed in college or postsecondary coursework, according to a recent study by Echelon Insights. Millennials believe the K–12 system must change to meet their needs but doubt that will occur: 74 percent think schools need “big changes” to create opportunity for students, while 58 percent say “we won’t make significant enough changes in our schools, and the problems today will keep getting worse.”
Millennial parents have varying views on the most important purpose of an education. A plurality—38 percent—say it is “to prepare students for further learning, like college or trade school.” The second most common answer, garnering 30 percent of respondents, is “to prepare students for the workforce so they can succeed in a career and make a living.” That means 68 percent link education’s purpose with preparation for further learning or a successful career.
Meanwhile, more than half of Americans, 52 percent, believe higher education is headed in “the wrong direction,” while only 20 percent believe it is generally headed in the “right direction,” according to a survey by the think tank Populace. What’s more, 67 percent of Americans believe that colleges and universities put their own institutional interests first, compared to those who believe they put students (9 percent) or the greater good (4 percent) first.
College Is More Than Job Preparation
These data confirm that college and school consumers experience a version of buyer’s remorse—a disenchantment over the disconnect between their educational expectations and experiences. This consumer perspective on how colleges are doing collides with what college leaders think: 96 percent of chief academic officers believe their institutions are very or somewhat effective at preparing students for the workforce. Postsecondary institutions do not bear the full blame for this disconnect; students change, times change, ideas about how to live one’s life change. But these findings indicate that these institutions should take a hard look at how they are approaching students’ school-to-career transition.
Notably, this disenchantment exists despite a wealth of research that demonstrates that college graduates earn far more over a lifetime than nongraduates. This “college earnings premium” has fluctuated over the past century and varies by degree type, ethnicity, geography, and gender, but it has never disappeared. When compared with high school graduates, degree holders have lower incidences of poverty and unemployment, a higher likelihood of having health insurance and retirement plan, and a longer life expectancy. The Commission to Build a Heathier America reports that on average, college graduates live at least five years longer than those who did not complete high school.
Societal benefits include higher annual cash donations to charities; higher rates of volunteering and participating in civic, service and religious organizations; fewer incidents of criminal behavior; additional tax revenue; fewer recipients of means-tested public assistance and social insurance like unemployment compensation; and greater social capital, including more frequent speaking and exchanging favors with neighbors.
These advantages often accrue to society and the children of college graduates, who enjoy better long-term outcomes.
That said, the benefits of college may hit a ceiling. Nobel Prize winners Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton investigate income and wellbeing from another perspective. They distinguish between two aspects of happiness—experiencing and remembering—each of which gauges a different dimension of wellbeing. Emotional wellbeing derives from our experiencing selves and the frequency and intensity of the emotional qualities of everyday life like affection, joy, and sadness that make life pleasant or unpleasant. Conversely, life evaluation derives from our remembering selves and has a longer time frame. It describes our thoughts about our own lives from a broader perspective as we compare ourselves to others or as we achieve goals and meet expectations.
Kahneman and Deaton asked “whether money buys happiness, separately for these two aspects of wellbeing.” To measure this, they analyzed Gallup and the Healthways Corporation’s daily surveys of more than 1,000 randomly selected individuals across 2008 and 2009, yielding more than 450,000 responses. Emotional wellbeing was assessed by asking individuals how much time they had spent in positive and negative emotional states the previous day. Life evaluation was measured by asking individuals to rate their lives on a scale of zero to 10.
On average, life evaluations rise with household income, while emotional wellbeing levels off at approximately $75,000 (though this amount varies by geography and other factors). In their analysis, college graduates are more likely to have higher life evaluations but not necessarily better emotional wellbeing.
What to make of this? A college degree produces a wage premium and is associated with significant benefits for individuals, their children, and society. In addition, Kahneman and Deaton suggest that the higher income associated with a degree does bring individuals a life they think is better. But the emotional wellbeing of daily life has a point of “income satiation” after which it levels off.
Part Two: New Frameworks
College Mobility Report Cards
Given the many individual and societal benefits of higher education, what if students took a different approach to choosing a college, and what if the K–12 system took a different approach to preparing students for postsecondary opportunities?
Harvard economist Raj Chetty and colleagues at Opportunity Insights have demonstrated that a college degree is often a dependable path to upward social and economic mobility, especially for young people from low-income backgrounds, but the extent to which this is the case varies across institutions. Their mobility report cards provide a novel snapshot of how individual colleges are promoting or hindering long-term economic success and prosperity for low-income students. Rather than focusing exclusively on college graduation as a success metric, this approach emphasizes intergenerational upward economic mobility, or the degree to which children economically exceed, or lag behind, their parents.
These report cards for individual colleges are based on analysis of anonymous data on over 30 million college students between 1999 to 2013. A college’s upward mobility rate is calculated by multiplying an access rate (proportion of students in the bottom 20 percent of income distribution) and success rate (proportion of those students reaching the top 20 percent) to determine the percentage of enrollees rising from the bottom income quintile to the top quintile. Table 1 lists the top ten colleges ranked by their mobility rate.
Three key findings emerge from these report cards. First, mobility rates differ across institutions in part because low-income students’ access to them varies. For example, 16 percent of the State University of New York at Stony Brook students are from the bottom income quintile, compared with a 4 percent average at elite institutions like Harvard or Stanford, even with their generous financial aid awards. Rates of bottom-to-top quintile mobility are highest at mid-tier public universities like California State University, Los Angeles, Pace University, and Stony Brook, the top three institutions by mobility rate. Rates of bottom quintile to top 1 percent mobility are highest at elite institutions. Regrettably, between 2000 and 2011, the fraction of low-income students at mid-tier institutions with high mobility rates fell sharply, though it held steady at elite institutions.
Second, children from low- and high-income families who attend the same college tend to have similar earnings outcomes. For example, about 60 percent of Columbia University students from both low- and high-income families reach the top 20 percent of earners. This suggests institutions can create a level playing field for students with different socioeconomic backgrounds. Chetty believes increasing access to high-mobility mid-tier institutions is a sure way to expand upward economic mobility and earnings for many low-income students, since annual instructional expenditures average less than $6,500 per student, compared with elite colleges that average $87,000 per student. His analysis of these mid-tier colleges has identified what David Leonhardt, writing in The New York Times, calls “America’s great working class colleges,” able to propel students from low- and modest-income backgrounds to the middle class and beyond.
Third, the report cards reveal significant differences in mobility by race. For example, Black and Native American children have substantially lower rates of upward mobility, leaving them “stuck in place across generations.” Tragically, Black children born into the top 20 percent of the income distribution are almost as likely to fall to the bottom 20 percent as they are to remain there—a pattern driven by men’s rather than women’s outcomes. Latinos across generations move up in income distribution, with mobility rates just below those of whites, and Asian-Americans have the highest level of upward mobility.
Chetty’s analysis has its limits; it’s descriptive and therefore doesn’t explain the causes of these mobility outcomes. For example, what postsecondary courses, majors, or support services create an upward trajectory? Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner note that the mobility rates reported for public universities may be misleading in states with few academically prepared students with family incomes in the bottom 20 percent. Nevertheless, the analysis strongly suggests that college can be a significant engine of economic opportunity and social mobility—something that many “Top Colleges” lists ignore. Chetty’s mobility report cards embody a new college success metric and illustrate that many postsecondary institutions are providing a pathway to prosperity and social and economic mobility, especially for low-income students.
Chetty’s work also speaks to the frustration voiced in the aforementioned surveys. When 86 percent of entering freshmen say getting a better job is a “very important” reason for attending college, they’re voicing a desire for upward mobility. If prospective college students consult the mobility report cards and other similar resources to inform their institutional choice, they may be more likely to join the 26 percent of graduates who “strongly agree” their education is relevant to both career and day-to-day life.
Segmenting Demand: Jobs to be Done
Choosing the right college is only part of the story. Deciding what—if any—education to pursue after high school is more complicated than ever. And it’s not just high school graduates who worry about further education. Many adults are “upskilling” and looking for the right educational environment. These decisions have lasting consequences. For example, the average 2017 college loan borrower will have about $37,000 in debt after graduation, with the average bachelor’s degree holder taking 21 years to repay federal student loans.
Why seek further education, whether in a four-year university, two-year community college, or vocational or other training program? How can these learners make better decisions about what’s right for them? Michael Horn and Bob Moesta, both fellows at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, interviewed over 200 individuals and surveyed more than 1,000 students, collecting detailed stories on their motivations for pursuing postsecondary education. They’ve categorized these findings using the “jobs to be done theory,” an approach that examines why individuals hire a product or service to get a job done in their lives. Their analysis suggests five potential “jobs” students hire postsecondary education providers to do for them (see Table 2). It also serves as a useful tool for young people and those helping them navigate the decision about what to do after high school.
Jobs Students Hire Postsecondary Education to do After High School
|Job 1: Help me get into the best school. This job is about getting into a school, not the schooling experience or what happens after graduation. During high school, families often make significant financial investments in student support services like tutoring, college counselors, and testing coaches. These individuals are usually traditional college students attending school full-time for the traditional college experience.|
|Job 2: Help me do what’s expected. This job is about going to school to satisfy someone, like parents or a spouse. These individuals go through the motion, attending school for an extrinsic reason. While students experiencing this job are often apathetic about their education choice, a degree is a security blanket that ultimately could be useful to them.|
|Job 3: Help me get away. This job is about breaking the daily grind, escaping a current situation like a job, a role, or a place. These individuals are likely to attend an institution where there is a person they know well. The educational institution is an escape valve from present pressures. The program in which a person is enrolled isn’t that important.|
|Job 4: Help me step it up. This job is about going beyond what individuals are doing now—the rut a person might be in—with a focus on and knowledge of what’s next in life. These individuals are solving a challenge that will make their life better. In this situation, individuals are likely to know what credential or certificate they need to advance themselves.|
|Job 5: Help me extend myself. This job is about learning for learning’s sake. Individuals are motivated intrinsically to acquire new knowledge and skills. They are likely in a rewarding situation, not running from a condition. But now they have time and resources to pursue more education and accomplish something meaningful.|
In these jobs, there are two forces compelling individuals to change: the “push” of a problem causing dissatisfaction and the “pull” of a new solution. This push and pull raises questions that are practical, emotional, personal, and social. For example: will I get a raise with a degree or new credential? Am I better off staying with what I’m doing rather than doing something different? My friends are going to college, so should I? How can I challenge myself to learn more? In today’s world, individuals can experience several of these jobs—and perhaps all of them–multiple times.
In addition to traditional two- or four-year institutions, other educational options that respond to these “jobs to be done” include apprenticeships and internships; career and technical education; job placement and in-house training; and boot camps for acquiring discrete knowledge or skills. There are also new approaches to paying for programs, like income-share agreements that allow students to pay for education based on income. Understanding what motivates individuals and helping them be clear about their reasons for seeking more education—the job to be done—can help them make better choices and avoid unintended consequences.
Other Paths to Good Jobs
Of course, finding good-paying jobs doesn’t necessarily require a bachelor’s degree. While that degree has become a de facto proxy for employability, only around one-third of American adults possess a four-year degree. The impressive value attached to the college degree leads individuals to think that nothing less can yield as good—or almost as good—an outcome. In fact, there are “opportunity rich” employment options for those without a four-year degree that move individuals into the middle class and careers worth having.
According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, there are about 65 million existing “good jobs.” The center defines a good job as paying at least $35,000 annually for those aged 25 to 44 and $45,000 for those in the 45 to 64 range, at a time when 2016 American median earnings were $65,000. Some people earning six figures may not view such jobs as “good,” but a great many people manage to get by, and even thrive, with them.
The first non-four-year pathway is the high school pathway, which includes those with a high school diploma or less and leads to 20 percent of good jobs. 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 degrees or 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.
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, marking the ascent of the “college economy.” From 1991 to 2016, bachelor’s degree pathway jobs doubled, from 18 to 36 million. Middle skills jobs grew by 3 million. While high school jobs decreased by about 2 million, 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.
Analysts at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland examined labor market differences for those with and without bachelor’s degrees in 121 metro areas with 103.5 million employed workers, making up73 percent of total 2017 U.S. employment). Almost 22 percent of these were “opportunity jobs,” or 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 25 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 16 occupations, there was no employer consensus regarding the education credentials needed for those jobs.
This lack of consensus may be due largely to labor market issues 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,” according to the Cleveland Fed analysis. 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. 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.
An example of this approach at the state level is the Delaware Pathways program, initiated during the 2014–15 school year by Governor Jack Markell as a statewide initiative to provide college and career preparation for youth. Students can take college classes at no cost to families, work as interns in real jobs, and earn work credentials (see “Summer School is the New Summer Job,” features, Summer 2020). Middle school students learn about career options and then, as high school sophomores or juniors, take courses related to careers. In the summer before senior year, students start a 240-hour paid internship that goes through the senior year. The program creates pathways from school to careers aligned with state and regional economies, especially middle-skills jobs. In Delaware, these jobs offer an average salary of nearly $45,000 a year, compared with low-skills jobs that offer an average salary of around $26,000 a year.
The program involves a diverse partnership, including K–12 education, businesses, postsecondary education, philanthropy and community agencies and organizations. For example, Delaware Technical Community College is the lead agency that arranges work-based experiences. The United Way coordinates support service for low-income students. Boys and Girls Clubs and libraries provide after-school service for youth. The initiative is governed by a steering committee composed of representatives from the public, private and nonprofit sectors, with financial support coming from public and private dollars, including philanthropy. Currently there are 26 pathways programs in fields like advanced manufacturing, computer science, digital marketing and communications, agricultural science, and health care. Over 16,000 students are enrolled. In some pathways, students take career-related courses at institutions of higher education and earn college credit which that be applied to an associate degree or certificate. In others, students take courses at their high school. Teachers for the courses have extensive industry experience.
Part Three: New Approaches
The Supply Side: Delivering an Education
The onus for accelerating upward mobility and making postsecondary education relevant to careers should not fall exclusively on colleges and universities. Innovations undertaken by K–12 and postsecondary education and other community organizations and enterprises are creating new pathways for young people that engage them in novel ways and lead them to in-demand twenty-first–century jobs and careers. These include apprenticeships, internships, and career and technical education; dual enrollment in high school and postsecondary institutions, including job placement and training; career academies; boot camps that focus on acquiring discreet knowledge or skills; staffing, placement and other support services; and income-share agreements, allowing students to repay tuition after acquiring a good-paying job.
This engagement allows young people, with the assistance of classroom educators and workforce mentors, to make a connection between school and work, education and career. It also prepares them to make a better-informed decision about their next step after high school. A better-informed decision on the front end will likely lead to greater satisfaction on the back end.
Here are five examples from different sectors and domains:
1. K–12 School District and Charter School Partnerships: Da Vinci Schools, a Los Angeles-area charter school created in 2009 by the Wiseburn School District, is a partnership between the district and charter school. It serves 2,100 students from 108 zip codes in grades K–16 and includes a K–8 home school-hybrid model, four high schools, a postsecondary college and career program, and a training institute. Ninety-eight percent of its students graduate from high school and meet the admissions requirements for the University of California system.
Da Vinci has more than 100 business and nonprofit partners that offer internships, mentorships, workshops, boot camps, project consultancies, and other student engagement programs. Student services to partners include website and social media design, graphic design, and youth marketing focus groups.
The Da Vinci Extension program integrates high school, college, careers, and student services like mental health and counseling. Students, some of whom are already working, have two pathways to further education, including associate’s or bachelor’s degrees via classroom and online instruction. One pathway is through UCLA Extension and El Camino College, at no cost to students. The other pathway is College for America, affiliated with Southern New Hampshire University. Program costs can be subsidized by Pell Grants and local funding. At both programs, students access tutoring, advising, and teacher support through Da Vinci.
2. National Catholic School Networks: Cristo Rey, founded in 1996, is a network of 37 Catholic schools enrolling 12,000 students in 24 states. On average, 40 percent of students in the network are not Catholic, and 98 percent are minority youth, with an average family income for four of $37,000. The network integrates four years of academics with work experience through its Corporate Work Study Program, a separate nonprofit that places high school students five days a month in an entry-level, professional job chosen from among over 3,400 corporate partners.
At full enrollment, a Cristo Rey school’s financial model reflects 60 percent of funds earned through the corporate work-study program, 30 percent through fundraising, and 10 percent through family contributions of, on average, $1,000 a year. Families access state school voucher and tax credit programs where available.
3. Public-Private Partnerships: In Georgia, Junior Achievement, Fulton County Schools, and the Atlanta business community launched a public-private partnership in 2015 to create a new school curriculum model within a traditional district high school. 3-D Education (3DE) says it “re-engineers high school education to be more relevant, experiential, and…connected to the…real world in order to more fully prepare today’s students for the demands of tomorrow’s economy.” Today, 3DE has expanded to six schools in four public school districts.
Examples of the workforce pathways it offers students include business and technology; entrepreneurship; marketing and management; and financial services. 3DE’s project-based learning design includes a six-week case study beginning in 11th grade that involves students in off-campus experiences with industries and professions, including work-based coaches. Not only do students excel academically, they feel prepared for what lies ahead: 98 percent of 3DE students feel excited about their futures.
4. Citywide Partnerships: In New Orleans, the education, business, and civic partnership YouthForce New Orleans has prepared students for high-wage and high-demand career pathways since 2015. YouthForce New Orleans works with open enrollment charter high schools, offering career exposure and work experiences, soft-skills training, coaching for students, and paid student internships for seniors. The internships consist of 60 hours of professionalism training, followed by 90 hours of work placement in a career pathway where opportunities include biology and health sciences, digital media and IT, and skilled crafts like architecture and water management.
YouthForce New Orleans has other programs, including an annual Career Expo for sophomores sponsored by Junior Achievement; a soft skills teacher fellowship where teachers learn the practice and teaching of soft skills; and a family engagement program educating parents about the career pathways program. The 12 organizations comprising the organization’s steering committee, including the New Orleans school district, workforce and economic development organizations, community advisory groups and philanthropic partners, are the secret sauce to getting on the other side of bureaucracy and putting New Orleans’ students first.
5. Private Enterprises: In Indianapolis, Kenzie Academy began in 2017 as a two-year venture-funded technology and apprenticeship program focused on software engineering skills for students from varying backgrounds, such 19-year-old high school graduates, formerly incarcerated individuals, and individuals with master’s degrees seeking new occupational opportunities. In year two of the program, students apprentice in Kenzie Studio, the company’s consulting arm.
To make the $24,000-a-year program accessible to more people, Kenzie encourages students to sign an income-share agreement that can delay payments until they complete the program and have a job paying at least $40,000. Kenzie also has a partnership with Butler University allowing students to receive a joint certificate from both organizations.
General Assembly, founded in 2011, is a for-profit “boot camp” that offers short and long, in-person and online courses in computer programming, data science, and product management. It leverages 30 campuses worldwide, more than 19,000 hiring partners, over 20,000 expert instructors, and a network of 70,000 global alumni. Through its Catalyst program, an enrollee can take courses at no upfront cost, paying back tuition in manageable monthly installments only after obtaining a job paying more than $40,000.
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. And for those who do go on to college immediately after high school, there are new ways emerging of supporting young people while they are at college so that they attain a degree in no more than six years.
Creating an Occupational Identity and Vocational Self
These innovative programs help America’s young people develop an occupational identity—the conscious awareness of themselves as workers—and hence a vocational self. These pioneering efforts can counter young people’s disengagement in school and the disappointment millennials express when they talk about their educational experiences.
These types of programs also help young people build the social networks they need to prosper in life. As the saying goes, it’s not just what you know but who you know. This is a form of what analysts call a network approach to developing social capital—an approach based on the distinction between bonding social capital and bridging social capital.
Bonding social capital occurs within a group and reflects the need to be with others like ourselves, providing personal emotional support, companionship, and validation. Bridging social capital occurs between social groups and reflects the need to connect with individuals different from ourselves, expanding our knowledge, social circles, and resources across features like race, class, or religion. It also includes how people and institutions interact with each other in a power relationship or hierarchy, like a community organization and a government agency. Bonding and bridging social capital are complementary. As Xavier DeSousa Briggs says, bonding social capital is for “getting by” and bridging social capital is for “getting ahead.” It is the latter that propels young people to opportunity, general wellbeing, and responsible citizenship—all key dimensions of the American Dream.
Four-year college graduates are dissatisfied with the return they are getting on their investment, and they are dissatisfied even in the face of the benefits they receive by virtue of their bachelor’s degree. It’s possible to break this cycle, and it’s possible to get better outcomes. To start, students can choose their college based on how well it supports upward mobility, pursue an alternative to college, or find ways to integrate college and career readiness into their K–12 education. A host of innovative efforts are underway to help students do just that.
Bruno V. Manno is senior advisor for K–12 education reform with the Walton Family Foundation.