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As the public grows more skeptical of the value of a college degree, career and professional training has become a popular alternative. Indeed, it is long past time for Americans to recognize the value of training programs in the labor market.
But we must not lose sight of the fact that a bachelor’s degree is still the most reliable route to the middle class.
Despite the value of the bachelor’s degree, there is widespread concern about the high cost of college and the growing student debt burden. Only half of all Americans think that the benefits of college outweigh the costs according to a recent survey from Public Agenda. Notably, college undergraduate enrollment dropped 7 percent between 2019 and 2022.
The Biden administration’s student loan debt forgiveness plan is a clear acknowledgment that college costs and the accompanying debt burden have become unsustainable for too many Americans.
Cost concerns make growing interest in job training programs and other pathways to good jobs that don’t require college degrees appear all the more reasonable. Since the 1980s, the U.S. economy has undergone a technologically driven transformation, providing larger monetary advantages to workers who have education or training beyond a high school diploma.
Our projections show that, by 2031, 72 percent of all jobs in the country will go to workers with at least some education beyond high school, as will 85 percent of good jobs, meaning jobs that pay at least $38,000 per year for workers ages 25 to 44, at least $49,000 for workers ages 45 to 64 and $72,000 at the median nationwide, with adjustments for cost-of-living differences by state.
Training programs can be viable pathways to well-paying jobs, particularly in the short term. Nearly one in five good jobs go to workers without a bachelor’s degree but with some education beyond high school, including a training-related certificate or certification, an associate degree or some college education.
And certificates and associate degrees are broadly viewed as more affordable than bachelor’s degrees. In a survey from Morning Consult close to two-thirds of adults said community colleges and professional training programs are affordable, compared to just 35 percent who viewed undergraduate education at an in-state public university as affordable.
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But despite these findings, a college degree remains a worthwhile long-term investment. Our research has consistently shown the substantial payoff of a bachelor’s degree in the labor market. Over a lifetime, a worker with a bachelor’s degree typically earns $1.2 million more than a worker with no more than a high school diploma, compared to a lifetime earnings boost of just $300,000 for those with some college education but no degree and $400,000 for those with an associate degree.
Furthermore, median lifetime earnings for master’s degree holders are $1.6 million higher than for those with no more than a high school diploma.
We must not forget that the bachelor’s degree is still the gold standard for workers in today’s economy. By 2031, we estimate that 43 percent of all jobs and 66 percent of good jobs will demand a bachelor’s degree or higher. By contrast, just 13 percent of jobs will demand an associate degree, and 16 percent of jobs will demand some education beyond high school but not a bachelor’s degree.
We must not lose sight of the fact that a bachelor’s degree is still the most reliable route to the middle class.
Yet, it’s no surprise that uncertainty about the value of a college degree is growing when politicians from both parties are touting growth in jobs that do not require a bachelor’s degree. Earlier this year, Maryland dropped the degree requirement for thousands of state government jobs.
And since the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed last year, politicians have been promoting the expected growth in infrastructure jobs that will only require a small amount of training beyond high school.
Unfortunately, the impending growth in infrastructure jobs brought on by the bill will be fleeting. Our research shows that growth in infrastructure jobs — most of which are typically filled by men — likely won’t last into the next decade.
That is because it takes many more workers to build infrastructure than to maintain it, and the sustainability of these jobs will depend on whether Congress funds infrastructure in the future. The risk is that temporary infrastructure jobs will draw even more potential students, mostly men, away from postsecondary education. As a result, there may be a need to retrain the infrastructure workforce in the next decade.
Meanwhile, we need to start holding training programs accountable for ensuring that graduates have good financial outcomes in the labor market. The JOBS Act, which was passed by the House as part of the America COMPETES Act but did not become law, would have expanded access to Pell Grants for high-quality, short-term training programs.
That funding would have been accompanied by accountability provisions, including that programs demonstrate that their participants receive a minimum 20 percent median earnings boost after completion. We should renew consideration of these measures to strengthen the pathway to good jobs through training programs.
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Furthermore, new gainful employment rules being considered by the Biden administration would ensure that earnings from these programs exceed their graduates’ debt — and the earnings of local high school graduates — following program completion.
Promoting training programs and protecting consumers with accountability measures will give more people access to skill development and opportunities in the labor market.
At the same time, we should not forget that the bachelor’s degree still offers the best chance for people to secure sustainable economic opportunity. The bachelor’s degree is not the only pathway to the middle class, but it is the most reliable route.
Anthony P. Carnevale is the founder and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Nicole Smith is a research professor and the chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
This story about the value of a bachelor’s degree was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
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