Why a “college and” approach is necessary to rebuild the middle class

College can’t be the only path to the middle class, writes Kate Naranjo of Opportunity@Work. And we’ve neglected to invest in other routes for far too long.

The American Dream’s promise goes something like this: “If you and your family work hard, you can be anything one day.”

My great-grandfather Julio Naranjo emigrated to the United States. His son, my grandfather, joined the Marines and went to college on the GI Bill. My mother put herself through East Tennessee State with a co-operative agreement with a local employer. And then, just three generations after Julio came to the country, I got my bachelor’s degree, followed by a master’s. 

My family’s story, in some ways, is that American dream. But our upward mobility was not “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”— it was enabled by and through public and private investments in higher education to launch us into the middle class. These kinds of policies and public-private partnerships were ultimately a social contract between Americans and their institutions: work hard and you and your family can “make it.”

Millions have turned to college as a way to build pathways to the middle class: and it’s paid off for them. The payoff is both measurable in higher earnings, and in more subtle ways, as employers are willing to take a bigger chance on college grads. 

Policymakers have seen college as an engine of upward mobility and made it the publicly supported route. As college costs have risen, more and more public dollars have been invested to support what seems like a “scalable solution” towards building the middle class. Meanwhile, public workforce investment like the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act have declined by 40 percent. 

This coincides with concerning social trends that have shrunk the middle class: a huge decline in economic mobility and deepening inequality. It also leaves out the majority of workers, who’ve faced worsening labor market outcomes: 60 percent of workers today don’t hold a college degree, and it takes more than 30 years for their wages to catch up to their bachelor’s degree counterparts.  

If we want to rebuild economic mobility, we must see both college and “alternative routes” as viable ways to build a thriving labor force and a path to the middle class. This is a “both/and” approach, not an “either/or”— a critical distinction as we all work towards the same goal: more workers in good jobs.

We already know college alone cannot fix declining economic mobility because it does not pay off equally for all workers. 

Black and Hispanic bachelor’s degree holders still face a wage gap. First generation students also don’t see the same return on investment as their classmates with degree-holding parents. The millions who start college, but don’t obtain a degree only see a small increase in earnings.

The half of the workforce who are STARs—workers who are Skilled Through Alternative Routes—also deserve an equally valued pathway to the middle class. These 70+ million workers are over 25, in the labor force, and have numerous skills they’ve gained though alternative (non-bachelor’s degree) routes. Some of these routes include training programs, associate degrees, bootcamps, and—most commonly—on the job skill development. 

A generation ago, STARs used their skills in good-paying jobs in sectors like business and financial operations, a multitude of computer science and information technology roles, and management roles. These jobs are increasingly posted with three, sometimes unintentionally, exclusionary words—“Bachelor’s degree required.”  There are now 7.4 million fewer STARs in these roles than there were 20 years ago.

How can we invest in both college and alternative routes? 

First, let’s accurately identify the challenges workers are facing. Reframing our approach to start with the skills STARs already have—rather than using a one-size-fits-all investment in reskilling—is critical. Our research has identified more than 30 million STARs who already have the skills for higher-wage work today. But because they haven’t followed the college route, they’re misclassified in our labor market as “unskilled.” These workers often face other, non-skill barriers to higher wage jobs that we should invest in—barriers like childcare, transportation, and a lack of access to technology

For other workers, policymakers and employers need to invest in skilling, both in college and in “alternative” routes. 

One solution could be to widen access to higher education—and to be sure, we should. There are innovative programs across the country working to make sure students get to and through college. We should fund these, and plenty of others, to ensure that every student who wants to go has both the financial and non-financial support to attend college. 

But workers who take “alternative routes” are the collective majority, and we should invest in them seriously as well. There are a literally thousands of routes that workers take, but to name a few promising ones:

Last but certainly not least, we need to rethink the role of the employer in a worker’s skilling journey, including creating more incentives for on-the-job training. The majority of on-the-job training now goes to workers with bachelor’s degrees, and while we’ve made promising steps towards widening apprenticeships, we must fund more employer-driven programs focused on transferable skills.

We’ve been asking college to be the sole bridge to economic mobility and the middle class—and allowing it too often to act as a drawbridge. Instead, we should build new bridges and widen others. By focusing our investments on what workers actually need—in some cases, upskilling and in others, non-skill supports—we can build and rebuild thousands of routes to the middle class.

Kate Naranjo is the director of the STARs Policy Project at Opportunity@Work, which works with policymakers to enable economic mobility for workers Skilled Through Alternative Routes (STARs).

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