Why College Really Is For Everyone

If we care about the future prospects of our nation's economy, we must embrace the wide range of degrees our system of higher education offers.

“College isn't for everyone.” Who hasn’t heard this line before? But repeating this line is costing our economic future.

One reason it persists is the pernicious assumption that the goal to radically increase the number of college degrees means bachelor's degrees. Not true. The national move to increase college completion very much includes vital associate's degrees and certificates, in addition to four-year bachelor's degrees. Projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that six of the top ten fastest-growing occupations require education or training below the bachelor's degree level—degrees largely conferred by community colleges.

This week, the White House will convene its first-ever Summit on Community College to highlight the critical role that community colleges play in developing America’s workforce and regaining the world’s top spot in earning college degrees by 2020. Community college enrollment has been increasing at more than three times the rate of four-year colleges. For students, the investment seems to pay off.

A Complete College America report to be released later this month shows that students who completed a community college certificate in Florida earned 27 percent higher incomes than those students who left without any credential—a percentage that equals about $8,000 a year more in income. These graduates are often students who previously struggled with education, and received poor grades in high school. With a credential in hand their futures are vastly improved.

According to the report, late starters in Washington state—students over the age of 25—who completed at least one year’s worth of college in a credentialed program of study earned over $4,000 more annually than those who earned fewer credits.

Further, by 2018, 64 percent of all new jobs will require some form of college, according to exhaustive research conducted by Anthony Carnevale at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. The biggest share of jobs—28 percent—will require either an associate's degree or some form of college; 23 percent will require a bachelor's degree and 10 percent will need graduate degrees.

So, where will all of these jobs be? Five of the six fastest-growing occupations are in the health care industry. Under the new healthcare reform law, 31 million new consumers will have access to the health care system. This surge will mean much greater demand for frontline workers—the more than five million nurses, health aides, medical assistants, laboratory technicians, and other workers who make it possible for the nation’s hospitals and clinics to operate and provide care.

Amid persistently high unemployment, the health-care industry added 28,000 jobs in August and an average of about 20,000 jobs a month throughout 2009 and 2010. This growth will only continue. To expand opportunities for more students to pursue careers in this field, the federal government provides around $7 billion each year on Pell grants and loans for students who pursue health-related vocational or occupational certificate and associate’s degree programs.

Toledo, which boasts the highest college enrollment rate in the nation, saw a major surge in students seeking training in healthcare. The degrees Toledo area students are pursuing will fill critical positions. For example, students who earn medical technician degrees and certificates can become polysomnographic technicians, who can run sleep studies. Students who earn an associate's degree in cardiovascular technologies can assist a cardiologist with an exam. Pharmacy technician and nurses aide programs at Terra Community College in the Toledo metropolitan area experienced record enrollment growth this fall, breaking the 3,500-student mark for the first time in the school’s history.

Toledo will provide an important test of whether cash-strapped higher education can translate soaring enrollments into a new generation of highly-skilled, college-educated workers.

If the U.S. could muster the capacity to better match skills with today’s jobs, unemployment would be at 6.5 percent instead of 9.6 percent, according to estimates from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank. That represents millions of good-paying jobs.

To do just that, major national foundations are starting to fund effort to help institutions, states and non-profit organizations better match various types of degrees with much needed job skills. For example, last week the Lumina Foundation for Education announced a nearly $15 million effort to help some 6.6 million adults who have some prior college credits, finish the kinds of college degrees, certificates and other credentials that can help them get hired. And just this week, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced a $34.8 million, five-year effort to increase degree and credential completion for low-income young adults.

If we care about the future prospects of our nation’s economy and its people’s potential to advance, we must embrace the wide range of degrees our higher education system offers. As a matter of degrees, college really is for everyone.

Terrell Halaska and Kristin Conklin are founding partners of HCM Strategists, a Washington, D.C., public policy and advocacy consulting firm.

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