About the author: Stanley Litow is Accenture professor of the practice at Duke University and a trustee at the State University of New York. He previously served as president of the IBM Foundation and is the co-author of Breaking Barriers: How P-Tech Schools Create a Pathway From High School to College to Career.
A three-word phrase has recently entered into America’s discourse: “college doesn’t matter.” This is anathema to many Americans who grew up in the mid to late 20th century, but it has increasingly gained attention. Why?
First, there’s a crisis among employers who are struggling to find the right talent. Some see value in a short-term credential directly connected to an immediate need in the workplace that could be met with a short-term skill, like coding. Second, the cost of college has increased markedly. College debt is a very real problem being debated but not acted upon in Congress. Finally, we have seen the rise of an anti-learning culture fueled by those who pick apart the basic value of learning and knowledge. This was best exemplified by the anti-science cult that emerged during Covid, but it continues.
Certainly, microcredentials can be valuable for some, though they’re hardly as important as a degree. College debt is a real problem as well. And knowledge and learning aren’t restricted only to those with degrees; they need to be valued as a critical part of our culture. But facts don’t lie. College does matter, in many ways now more than ever. It’s likely to matter even more in the future.
For those who appreciate facts and data, let’s look at the case for college. It is economic, civic, societal, and in a word, real. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, someone with a college degree will earn $524 more per week, $27,000 more per year, and $1 million more over a lifetime than someone with only a high school diploma or less. Since 2010, of the 11.6 million new jobs created, 95% of them—8.4 million jobs—went to those with bachelor’s degrees. In addition, according to BLS data, only 5.5% of those with bachelor’s degrees face unemployment while about 10% of those with only a high school diploma will. The Lumina Foundation finds that someone with a college degree is 20% more likely to own a home. According to Pew Research, those with a college degree are more than three times less likely to live in poverty than those with only a high school diploma.
The civic and societal case is equally clear. Those with a college degree are far more likely to vote, volunteer, and contribute financially to causes. Four out of ten Americans with college degrees volunteer, while less than two out of ten Americans with only a high school diploma do.
As America struggles to compete economically with China and other nations, an effective and efficient higher education system is directly connected to the nation’s economic and societal stability. Those with college educations will be our innovative scientists, helping us cope with pandemics. They will create cost-effective computer chips and cures for deadly disease. They will be our scientists, doctors, nurses, teachers, professors, social workers, business leaders—the list goes on.
College does matter. It is important that the facts are widely circulated, so our prospective high school graduates, this year and into the future, understand that applying and enrolling in college can make a positive impact on their lives. The same is true for nontraditional college-goers who are currently in the workplace, but lack the skills and education to maintain a stable career and achieve continued career success. But that doesn’t mean that our nation’s higher education system doesn’t need to improve and address the core issues that caused many to believe that college doesn’t matter. Quite the contrary. Our higher education systems need to embrace change and reform.
First of all, higher education leadership, in cooperation with political leaders at the federal and state levels, needs to find ways to bring the cost of college down, especially for those with economic challenges. They need to work in bipartisan ways to make higher education more accessible for all. That dictates a focus on diversity and inclusion. Second, we need more growth in degree areas connected to green jobs, STEM, health careers, biotech, as well as advanced manufacturing and other future growth areas. All of them are directly connected to career success. Degree programs beginning with our community colleges need to effectively align with real career opportunities. Finally, and perhaps most important, colleges need to directly respond to student needs for high-quality and more effective mental health support, guidance, and career services. There are practical and effective ways to address these issues. Higher education needs to embrace rather than resist change.
Governments at the federal, state, and local levels need to share the cost of college jointly. Tuition and fees for students in a public higher education system average about $26,290 per year, or in excess of $100,000 for a four-year degree. That entire cost shouldn’t be borne by one level of government, and certainly not by students themselves, especially those who are low-income. A cost-sharing arrangement with very modest amounts in student debt can be an effective solution, with very low interest rates, covering any remaining cost. The federal government especially needs to step up to the plate. Next, the incentives ought to be crystal clear to increase investment in courses linked to career opportunities, especially by encouraging partnerships with employers who cover tuition costs for their employees seeking to enhance their skills. At the same time, they need to phase out the cost of ineffective programs and shift the funding to what is in high-demand. If we intend to increase the number of skilled candidates taking jobs in areas like green energy, STEM, chip manufacturing, cybersecurity and healthcare, where else would we turn for a solution other than our higher education systems?
Clearly college matters. It matters to both individual students and to society as a whole. An increase in college attendance and completion rates will address the skills crisis and directly benefit our economy with added tax revenue. It will expand our voting rolls, increase voluntarism, enhance philanthropic contributions, and provide a clear return on our investment. And with a focus on education and skills for all, it will address the vast gap between haves and have nots based on income or race. College matters, now more than ever.
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