When Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) targeted philosophy majors in the Republican debate last week — arguing that welders earned more — he drew fire from a number of fact checkers, who noted, correctly, that the average philosophy major does earn more than the average welder.
But the deeper issue of frequent mismatch between career hopes and educational pathways has long concerned higher-education reform experts.
Many have long argued that the emphasis on four-year college degrees has obscured high-value career paths that are more technical and hands on — but usually do not come with the prestige of a bachelor’s degree.
"Rubio is right about what he really means to be saying," said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. "There are a whole series of certifications that take a year or less that earn more than the average bachelor's degree."
Carnevale says that 20 percent of technical certificate holders make more than the average B.A., while 30 percent of associate’s degrees earn more than the average four-year graduate. And that, he says, holds true not just after graduation, but 20 years after as well.
The most vulnerable to this educational paradox, Carnevale says, are four-year degrees in fields like humanities, history, education and psychology. Students weighing a four-year degree vs. a certificate or associate's degree need to factor earnings data.
The problem runs in two directions, said Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program in Washington, D.C.. He worries that students from poorer families are incorrectly steered toward tech careers, while wealthier kids get the same push toward four-year degrees.
Some kids from wealthier communities who could have very fulfilling careers aligned to their interests won't pursue those options because their parents fear the stigma of blue-collar jobs, Wyner says. "They view those jobs as dirty jobs, not worthy of a career for their kids."
The stigma attached to technical careers remains. There is a built-in bias against applied careers, Wyner says, in part because most of those doing the analysis and talking are themselves white collar and see a four-year degree as the only real educational choice.
And so, many reformers argue, a circle of ignorance continues to drive students into suboptimal educational and career paths. But possible solutions are on the table, Carnevale notes, and there could be dramatic changes in the offing.
One possible answer is transparency. “The Know Before You Go Act,” a bill co-sponsored by Rubio with two Democrats, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, would empower the Department of Education to share detailed data on the earnings of graduates from specific programs at specific schools.
The data, known as "student unit records," already available through Social Security and unemployment insurance records, combined with college graduation records, is currently illegal to collect — partly out of fears that personal information might leak and be misused. But critics also believe powerful higher education lobbies fear that they will be revealed in the emperor’s new clothes if the data comes out.
That critique stings enough that National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, on its website statement, defends it motives. "Whatever the speculation about our motives may be," the statement reads, "the truth is that our opposition is — and consistently has been — grounded in the concern about the adverse impact such a system would have on student privacy. We do not believe that the price for enrolling in college should be permanent entry into a massive data registry."
Supporters of student unit data say that separating the earnings data from the individual identities can be easily handled, given that the Social Security Administration routinely makes public critical economic and demographic statistics in a similar fashion.
The data matter because there is a widespread misperception that college is college. Carnevale notes that a college degree, on average, nets its owner $1 million more over a career than someone with just a high school degree. But the more dramatic gap is between college degrees. The top earning four-year majors, he says, earn $4 million more over a career than the lowest earning majors.
As to the philosophy degree itself, the example Rubio used, Carnavale agrees that many philosophy majors go on to lucrative careers. Almost invariably, Carnavale said, that data includes those who go on to high-earning graduate programs.
"There is a tendency to say B.A. but mean B.A.+," he said. "But when you do that, you jack up the numbers a lot."
"But it's a very risky major," he said. "It has a very long curve. The low is very low." The median, he said, is not bad but not great, consisting mainly of schoolteachers.
Flipping the system
If information doesn’t do the trick, making the system more flexible might, argues Mary Alice McCarthy, a senior analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based New America.
McCarthy says that traditional associate's degrees heavily emphasize general education, rendering them almost useless for starting a career unless the student promptly transfers and finishes a B.A.
At St. Charles Community College in Missouri, for instance, a student can get an A.A. with a computer science emphasis, but only five of 20 courses are on computer science. The bulk are general education. Instead, the SCCC student could do an applied associate's degree, which would lead directly to a job, but would not allow the credits to transfer to a B.A. program.
That barrier makes no sense, McCarthy argues. Instead, students should be encouraged to get marketable skills first, and then backfill the general education.
This approach was highlighted in a paper released last week by McCarthy. In “Flipping the Paradigm: Why We Need Training-based Pathways to the Bachelor’s Degree and How to Build Them,” McCarthy argues that states should allow students to directly leverage technical training into a bachelor’s degree.
The state of Washington, McCarthy notes, already offers what it calls an "upside down degree," allowing students who meet certain requirements to earn their technical associate's degree first and leverage that coursework and the resulting skills into either general education or major coursework for a bachelor's — after they already have a job.
Any student who earns an applied associate's degree from a community college in Washington can, while working full time in their new career, transfer those credits to Evergreen State College, where they tack on their general education classes to earn a bachelor's degree.
Carnevale emphatically agrees. It often makes more sense for a student to "get what they can sell first," he argues. The traditional college path involves years of unmarketable study, starting with general education as freshmen and then gradually moving into a career path as juniors or seniors, or even after going to graduate school.
Putting the applied skills at the end of the education track needlessly sidetracks students with limited resources, Carnevale argues. “Why can't you do it the other way around?” he said. "What most people need is not college. It's a job. Because if they don't get a job, they are never going to college. So let's flip the system."
Another simple option is for community colleges to offer four-year bachelor of applied science degrees. This allows the community college to combine what it already does — basic general education and career training — into a single offering.
Florida, Washington and Texas already do this, and in Florida, 24 of 28 community colleges offer four-year degrees in 150 career fields, including management, education and nursing.
McCarthy argues that flipping the system, putting general education last, also requires a rethinking of its purpose and scope.
Advocates of general education, of the broad coursework that offers basic science, culture, history and math, argue that this approach imbues "soft skills" while offering social and historical context so graduates can operate more effectively in the world, McCarthy notes.
But she argues we need to rethink what kinds of experience and knowledge serve this function. Why does the University of North Carolina accept a class in “detective fiction” as general education, but not a class in welding?
Josh Wyner at the Aspen Institute agrees. “These are technology-based jobs," he said. "You have to think critically. Problem solving matters. Teamwork matters. But it's hard to overcome the notion that hands-on work is not aligned with critical thinking."
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