In this era of high technology manufacturing, four years and a bachelor's degree is hardly the only smart path to take. Only 22 percent of jobs in our state require a bachelor's degree or above.
In recent decades, our society has developed a powerful cultural bias that a four-year college degree is optimal for everyone, and that any other path to a career is second-best, “for dummies.” Of course a four-degree remains an excellent choice for many. But it’s increasingly clear that our educational system’s single-minded focus on four-year colleges is failing many of our young people. It is also placing our society’s future prosperity in jeopardy.
In actual fact, young people who choose alternative pathways like a two-year associate’s degree, an apprenticeship or an occupational certificate can often land in-demand, well-paying jobs fast, avoid crippling debt and look forward to a secure future.
Our state’s manufacturers, for example, struggle to fill two-thirds of the available jobs, according to Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). The problem will grow worse as baby boomers continue to retire. This skills gap will severely hamper the ability of Minnesota’s economy to grow unless we address it with urgency now. The solution is hiding in plain sight. We must do better at informing students, and their parents, about all their opportunities as they make post-secondary plans.
Many are likely to find the benefits of a non-four-year path enticing. Apprentices and students in some technical college programs can begin earning money in their occupation at age 18. The “learn and earn” model enables them to pay for their education and begin their careers with little or no debt as young as age 20. Those entering in-demand fields can generally expect several job offers before they finish training. Many have impressive earning potential. Unfortunately, many young people never learn about attractive opportunities like these, because of our society’s “college for all” mantra, which rests on a number of myths.
About half of Minnesota high school graduates enroll in a four-year college. But only 36 percent of full-time, first-time students at the state’s public four-year institutions graduate in four years from the school where they started. Fifty-five percent finish in five years. Less than two-thirds have completed their degree after six years.
Where can students and parents find the information they need to evaluate all their postsecondary options? A paper from DEED — “What to Know Before You Owe,” is available online and lays out a great initial decision making strategy. Families can also consult DEED’s remarkable online “Graduate Employment Outcomes” tool, which shows how many Minnesota graduates are finding jobs from a broad range of majors and at what wages. Another online tool from DEED, “Occupations in Demand” includes information about careers that don’t require postsecondary training.
The Center of the American Experiment, a public-policy institution in Minneapolis, has launched a new project titled “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree: What It Means for Students, Parents and Employers.” The project’s mission is to ensure that students and parents know about the many exciting, fulfilling paths to career success.
Going forward, our society needs to re-emphasize the importance of honoring and respecting all career paths and particularly those who choose alternative career paths for the vital contributions they make to our communities.
Our state’s future prosperity, and the well-being of many of our young people, depend on it.