Beyond the Status Quo: Why ‘College or Bust’ Limits Economic Mobility

Our overwhelming focus on the four-year degree as the sole pathway to career success isn’t working for far too many people, writes Kate Naranjo. Why not dream big to create a system that works for everyone?

Debates about “college versus non-college” have been buzzing around conferences, social media, and the op-ed pages. The conclusion of these higher-ed hot-takes often appears to be that college is the right and only pathway to a good job, and therefore, the right and only solution to declining economic mobility is to expand college. 

Kate Naranjo

This black-and-white framing is appealing to those of us in the policy ecosystem, who like easy answers proven by data—but it ignores the reality that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for Americans when it comes to the questions around college.

People’s lives aren’t binary, they’re complex. The hard question for people considering college isn’t, “should I earn a four-year degree?” It’s more akin to, “can I earn a four-year degree? Does it work for my family? My finances? My life?”

Our overwhelming focus on one pathway to economic mobility isn’t working for far too many people, or our labor market. Rather than rehashing whether college pays off (it does, for the minority who attend and complete their degree), we must focus on the hard work of creating and valuing more pathways, so more people have a shot at the American Dream. 

As I wrote last year, “college and” not “college or” is the necessary strategy. Pragmatically, it’s also the only feasible one.

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of individuals asking those harder questions, for whom college might not be their best option (at least, not right now): 

  • A recent high school graduate who wanted to break into the tech industry, but couldn’t afford college because he needed to contribute financially to his family.
  • A student who worked hard to get a STEM degree—but then had to drop out her senior year, and was passed over for interviews even though she had the skills.
  • A student who couldn’t afford to go to college without being sure that his major would pay off because he was struggling with debt from his associate degree.
  • An immigrant who had been working on computers her whole life. 

These stories just examine people at the beginning of their career. The workers already in our labor force—some for many decades—have valuable skills that deserve recognition. The majority of Americans do not have a bachelor’s degree, and research shows many workers already have the skills for higher-wage work. Why would we argue that the only way for them to advance in their careers would be the impractical step of returning to school, when we could instead enable them to find a better job now?

Likewise, not all college experiences pay off. We all know the stories of predatory colleges, where students leave with low-value degrees and lots of debt. Even if you are able to attend a well-respected institution, what if you aren’t able to finish? For the millions of Americans who don’t graduate, they’re stuck, too—stuck with debt, stuck as a “high school only” graduate, and often stuck in a low-wage job. 

Many systems are stacked against creating economic mobility for more families today: the overturning of affirmative action, mounting sources of debt, rising inflation and historically stagnant wages. These systems further complicate the already complex lives of many. 

Importantly, there’s also a “right” kind of college that we’re imagining when we suppose the college degree is ultimately valuable. If you go to a “top” college or university, you reap the benefits of that degree with a substantial wage premium. Odds are, however, your family was already well-off. If you go to a “middle-tier” university, there’s a decent chance that it pays off. In particular, some colleges have built strong programs to create mobility—and should get even more funding and support to create more mobility for students.

Of course, if I had to give advice to a young person today looking to improve their economic future, I’d tell them to go to college. I’d also tell that to a student who really wanted to be in college. It’s the closest thing we’ve got to a “sure thing” (particularly for white students). And it’s the route I took. 

College is and will continue to be an important pathway. We should be working to make the higher education system more understandable, affordable, and valuable for everyone who wants to go to college—or needs to for their chosen field. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also be investing in other pathways to good jobs. We need a better system—for all workers—whether they have degrees or not. 

Things could be better than they are right now. Any good policymaker—and really, any visionary leader—looks beyond the horizon of “what is” to “what could be.” Why not ask ourselves to do the hard work of dreaming bigger to imagine a system that works for everyone, instead of asking everyone to make college work for them?

College could be one way to get a better job, but so could the recently announced climate corps, the expansion of apprenticeship through private and public investments, and new credential models. There’s also hope in new corporate thinking to change their hiring practices. 

Let’s reject the idea that the current system should dictate for people that college is the only route to a good job. Instead, let’s create an expansive future, where we can tell young people that there are many pathways to a good job—and that they should find the one that fits their career aspirations, their family, and their finances.

Kate Naranjo is an independent consultant with more than a decade of experience in the education and workforce world. She works with organizations who seek to create a more inclusive economic future for all. 

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