Does Everyone Need to Go to College?


Just google “does everyone need to go to college?” and you will have ample opportunity to view all the reasons why other pathways to good paying jobs are available. That’s what I did. In many cases, I did read some persuasive arguments about the rewards of pursuing career and technical education (CTE) skills leading to good paying jobs post high school. But is high school really enough?

Under the Obama-era education policy, educational standards focused on preparing students to be college and/or career ready. The goal was simple—all students need a legitimate pathway for the future after high school graduation. Additionally, in 2016 when the Obama administration announced a $90 million initiative to increase the number of apprenticeships in this country, it acknowledged that “The jobs available today, and the jobs of the future, are higher-skill jobs that require more education and advanced skills.” Completing high school, getting a good paying job and joining the middle class is not a sure thing.

Educators know this. More and more you see greater articulation among high schools, community colleges and four-year colleges relating to CTE, early college high schools, AP courses and dual enrollment programs. Good paying jobs require a higher level of knowledge and skills than they did at the beginning of the 21st century. Lifelong learning went from being a nice idea to an essential trait to ensure ongoing employability in an ever-evolving market place.

Thankfully, most Americans still strongly believe in post-secondary education. In a 2015 report from Gallup and the Lumina Foundation, some of their findings include:

  • 95% said it is important for adults in this country to have a degree or professional certificate beyond high school.
  • 93% said that it will be important in the future to have a degree or professional certificate beyond high school in order to get a good job.
  • 78% agreed that a good job is essential to having a high quality of life.

The economics of more education are very real. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report that:

  • For the first quarter of 2018, full-time workers age 25 and over without a high school diploma had median weekly earnings of $563, compared with $713 for high school graduates (no college), $808 for some college or an associate degree, and $1,286 for those holding a bachelor’s degree.
  • For March 2018, the unemployment rate for individuals age 25 and over with at least a bachelor’s degree was 2.2%, 3.6% for some college or associate degree recipients, 4.3% for high school graduates, and 5.5% with less than a high school diploma.

A 2016 College Board report points out an obvious but important fact:

  • Bachelor’s degree recipients paid an estimated $6,900 (91%) more in taxes and took home $17,700 (61%) more in after-tax income than high school graduates. Associate degree students paid $2,500 more in taxes than high school graduates and took home $6,700 more in after-tax income.

While the economic benefits of more education are important, that is not what attending college is solely about. College is not meant to be simply a job training program. If college was only meant to be a job training program, we certainly could do it a lot cheaper. Personally, I completed two degrees in political science and never went into politics. But in my collegiate work, I learned how to analyze information and data, undertake research, problem solve, collaborate, innovate, think critically and acquired a healthy amount of skepticism and caution when confronted with the “next big thing.” I was more ready to enter the workforce than I was coming out of high school.

The College Board also collects data from national databases and surveys that identify the non-economic benefits of a college education. Here is a sample:

  • College education is associated with healthier lifestyles, reducing health care costs.
  • In 2014, 69% of 25- to 34-year-olds with at least a bachelor’s degree, 61% with an associate degree and 45% of high school graduates reported exercising vigorously at least once a week.
  • Among adults age 25 and older, 16% of those with a high school diploma volunteered in 2015, compared with 39% of those with a bachelor’s degree and 27% with an associate degree.
  • In the 2014 midterm election, the voting rate of 25- to 44-year-olds with at least a bachelor’s degree (45%), with an associate degree or some college (32%) and for high school graduates (20%).
  • Children of parents with higher levels of educational attainment are more likely than others to engage in a variety of educational activities with their family members.

All good things.

Let’s get back to our initial question, “does everyone need to go to college?” Proponents of CTE are also seeing the value of post-secondary education. In a 2012 policy report on CTE, the authors report that:

“For many Americans, CTE starts at high school, although the share of high school students concentrating in vocational programming has declined for decades. This decline has been heavily influenced by the shift toward an economy in which post-secondary education and training has become the dominant pathway to jobs that pay middle-class wages.”

Of course, there are still issues that must be addressed to improve access to a college education; for example, cost, time needed to complete a degree and college completion—especially for students historically underrepresented in higher education. But given the benefits of a college education, these are issues that we should be vigorously pursuing for all students. In the long run, it benefits us all.