Commentary | Young workers

College is not always the answer

This piece first appeared in the New York Times’ Room for Debate

Should college be for everyone? Should as many people as possible be encouraged to attend college, or is the value of higher education exaggerated?

Right now a third of the work force has a four-year college degree or further education. Judging by the growth of demand for college graduates in the last two decades, the United States will need many more college graduates in the coming years — but not as many as half of all workers two decades from now.

In other words, we also need to prepare many students for jobs that don’t require college degrees. Even more important is that we need to ensure that these non-college jobs pay well and offer good benefits. This requires strong labor standards, a tangible ability to obtain union representation, and mandated benefits in retirement and other areas. Our goals should be to expand access to the broad range of higher education and career training: as President Obama has said, “community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship.”

Our focus should be to support students’ efforts to complete their education and training, especially disadvantaged and working class students (which means reversing the policy direction most states are taking).

The width of the path to the middle class is narrower than many people think: the inflation-adjusted wage of college graduates has not improved in a decade, and fewer now receive health and pension benefits, especially among young workers. A four-year college degree is not the panacea that many people think it is.

There is plenty of snobbery afoot regarding college educations. I have heard esteemed academics — conservative and liberal — wrongly equate college graduates with “smart people” and “skilled workers.” And, I have heard many conservative and liberal educational policy experts demean destinations other than college. We need a nation that has and values all sorts of work and skills, which means providing decent pay and benefits for many types of jobs.

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