Graduation day is near. Is college really the next best step?

Graduation day is near. Is college really the next best step?

Dear Colleagues,

May is upon us, flowers are in bloom and graduation day is near.

For many graduating high school students, college is their presumed next step. For many if not most students, college has become the default work preparation in the United States.

Setting aside the problem of the vocationalization of higher education, and setting aside that at least 40 percent of students who start college eventually drop out, and ignoring the massive debt that students accrue - is college really the best choice for a young adult's next step?

A recent report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce says "yes, but."  A recent opinion piece by Ellen Ruppel Shell in the New York Times says "yes, but ... well, maybe not."

The CEW report uses national data to demonstrate that "majors matter" - but there is great variation within majors with respect to income. According to the authors, many associate degrees can pay more than some baccalaureate degrees.  The message? If your sole measure of the worth of a college degree is economic, you might conclude that students should avoid the liberal arts (see the W. Norton Grubb speech I cited in the third paragraph above).

Ruppel Shell summarizes a number of studies suggesting that the reality is much more complex and involves the interaction of class, poverty and race as well as supply and demand. The premium paid for many STEM occupations is not what it used to be. It has become a function of supply and demand. As more people show up in the workforce with tech credentials, the lower the salary premium they command. One of Ruppel Shell's conclusions is particularly interesting - that is her suggestion that the college-degree premium may really be a no-college-degree penalty. College, she suggests, may not necessarily provide the leverage to build a better working life. It's just that not having a degree decreases whatever leverage an individual might otherwise have.

Two perspectives on a very complex issue. Something to consider as you enjoy the magic of Spring. As always, I enjoy hearing from you - please email me at nrccte@nrccte.org.