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January/February 2014

Refocusing college goals to consider more options
By Robert Klingborg and Dean Halverson

Robert Klingborg is director of Capital Area Career Center, providing career and technical education to 21 high schools in the Springfield area. Dean Halverson is a professor of educational leadership at Western Illinois University in Macomb.

Students and parents often get the message that obtaining a four-year degree is a good path to success. Most focus on a four-year college to help fulfill President Obama’s goal that the U.S will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. That challenge means eight million more young adults will need to earn associate’s or bachelor’s degrees by the end of this decade, according to the Department of Education. That’s an admirable goal, but should all these students be focused on bachelor’s degrees? The hope among students entering college to acquire a bachelor’s degree accentuates a four-year college as the only key to a “good career,” according to James Rosenbaum, a sociology professor at Northwestern University.

The truth is, many professions that require technical training or an associate’s degree have higher starting salaries than those requiring bachelor’s degrees [see chart A]. Also, the bachelor’s degree “payoff” has declined in recent years, yet increasing numbers of students seek a four-year degree. That “payoff” has to include starting salary, as well as accumulated debt. In a 2012 article in the New York Times, Andrew Martin and Andrew Lehren said:

“Extraordinary growth in student loans has caught many by surprise. But its roots are in fact deep, and the cast of contributing characters include college marketing officers, state lawmakers wielding a budget ax and wide-eyed students and families.

All are enabled by a basic economic dynamic: an insatiable demand for a (four-year) college education, at almost any price, and plenty of easy-to-secure loans, primarily from the federal government. The growth in student loans has led to the growth of student debt among four-year-college graduates. In 2008, 66 percent of students surveyed had borrowed money from the government or private lenders, a 20 percent increase from 20 years ago. College is an important investment, but that doesn’t mean a less costly degree can’t cement a desirable salary.

The Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce predicts that more than 60 percent of job openings in 2018 will involve training and education, beyond a high school diploma. When students, parents, counselors and secondary educators consider this projection they wrongly assume that to be successful a person must earn a bachelor’s degree. The job projections are correct, but a bachelor’s degree is not the only way.”

The “bachelor’s-degrees-for-everyone” mindset focuses on an oversimplified, idealized goal that everyone should strive for a four-year degree. In our opinion, this mindset is harmful, because it ignores other options and is based on four misconceptions that may keep students and parents from seeing viable alternatives.

The bachelor’s degree focus also ignores options that might be a better occupational fit.

When coupled with easy college access, that narrow focus leads many high school students to imagine themselves going to college, but they don’t think about possible academic challenges. So what are the four biggest misconceptions?

Misconception #1: bachelor’s degrees guarantee high earnings

“Bachelor’s degrees have a million-dollar payoff in lifetime earnings.” This often-repeated message is simple and powerful — and students have gotten it, according to Northwestern education researcher James Rosenbaum. In fact, the proportion of high school students planning to get a bachelor’s degree has increased steadily, resulting in 89 percent of high school graduates in 2004 saying they intend to earn bachelor’s degrees, while less than 1 percent said they had no plans to attend college. In other words, 99 percent of all high school graduates planned to attend college, and 89 percent planned to get four-year degrees [Chart B]. In interviews for Rosenbaum’s 2010 policy paper, “How students make Plans and Ways Schools and Colleges could help,” many students said they wanted bachelor’s degrees because of the earnings payoffs.

The “bachelor’s-degrees-for-everyone” mindset provides a positive goal, but conveys a narrow focus for the path to success.

People with bachelor’s degrees may have higher median earnings, but according to figures from Education Pays 2010, by Sandy Baum, Jennifer Ma, and Kathleen Payea, 25 percent of people with bachelor’s degrees have earnings below the median earnings of those with associate’s degrees [chart C]. They also fall below the earnings of the top 25 percent of people who did not go beyond high school. Not all jobs requiring bachelor’s degrees pay more than jobs requiring an associate’s degree or a high school diploma.

Student performance also plays a significant role in future earnings. Research shows that the bottom 25 percent of bachelor’s degree graduates have lower earnings than students with average achievement. And 30 years after high school, the average annual payoff for low-achieving bachelor’s degree graduates is less than $3,000 more than those with a high school diploma or an associate’s degree [see chart C]. Some low-achieving students may believe a bachelor’s degree will guarantee a million-dollar career even if they only do the minimum necessary to graduate. A student’s major also factors into the equation. Those with degrees in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) have a median annual income of $12,500 (or 37 percent) higher than for those with degrees in the humanities.

Earnings also are not the only measure of a good career. Students should understand that high wages do not necessarily equate to quality working conditions. High pay may be offered to offset poor working conditions.

In a study of colleges offering associate’s degrees, job-placement staff reported they urge associate’s degree graduates to avoid the highest-paying jobs because of the five Ds: They tend to be dirty, demanding, dangerous, dead-end (meaning they don’t lead to long-term payoffs), or deceptive (promising high commissions that rarely occur).

Misconception #2: alternative degrees prevent bachelor’s degrees

An emphasis on bachelor’s degrees implies that associate’s degrees are substandard. Counselors can discourage associate’s degrees as settling for an “inferior” degree that diverts students from higher degrees. But that isn’t necessarily true. In a national survey of the high school class of 1992, conducted in 2000, 10 percent of high school graduates had earned associate’s degrees. Of those graduates, 78 percent also got further education and 34 percent earned a bachelor’s degree. A survey that focused on associate’s degree recipients in occupational (i.e. business, health and technical) fields revealed 54 percent continued their education, 35 percent earned a bachelor’s degree or higher degree and 6 percent earned master’s degrees (often a Master of Business Administration degree). Associate’s degrees do not mean that students must or will stop there.

Misconception #3: college access equals success

In the 1960s and ’70s, many high school guidance counselors acted as gatekeepers by discouraging low-achieving students from attending college.

In the 1960s, enrollment at four-year colleges averaged 1.1 million students each year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But by 2013 enrollment at four-year schools was 10.9 million, NCES reported, with an additional l.6 million students at two-year colleges.

Many counselors today can and do encourage all students to look forward to college. But they often present an oversimplified view of admissions, telling students they can enter college even with poor high school grades. Unfortunately, they may not warn low-achieving students that poor grades will keep them out of some classes or programs, according to Basmat Parsad, author of High School Guidance Counseling in 2013. Avoiding these facts helps keep students optimistic and encourages them to make college plans, but it doesn’t prepare them for what actually awaits them on campus.

While an open admissions policy has provided many second chances, educators often focus on its benefits while ignoring facts. Rosenbaum’s 2010 study shows that of students with a “C” average in high school, “only 19 percent earned any credential (certificate, A.A. or B.A.) in the six years after high school.” Other studies have produced similar results. Unfortunately, the truth is, if a young adult doesn’t perform well in high school, that student is not likely to receive a higher degree very quickly, if at all.

In counselors’ defense, caseloads can be tremendous. Data from 2001 showed the ratio of counselors to students as 1:248. In some high schools, the workload for counselors exceeds 1:700. And some counselors actually spend less than 20 percent of their time on college guidance. Besides counselor/student ratios, another problem is access to data about former students. How are counselors supposed to gauge where and what type of students succeed, if they don’t know how previous graduates have done?

The “bachelor’s-degree-for-everyone” mindset also keeps counselors from providing sincere information. Counselors may even receive complaints from parents and principals when they inform students that they are not ready for college. When counselors do not follow the “college for all” narrative, they can be reprimanded. Open admissions at community colleges let students into school, where they are placed in remedial classes that don’t apply toward college level credit. Such students take classes for a semester or more and drop out, with no college credit to show for their time, but the debt of having been enrolled.

When counselors encourage low-achieving high school students to attend college, students assume their low achievement doesn’t matter. Those who graduated with minimal effort will expect the same in college. High school seniors may plan to seek a bachelor’s degree; but many don’t take demanding courses that would better prepare them for college-level work, according to the National Commission on the High School Senior Year, 2001. In reality, even top-performing high school students can have trouble transitioning to college.

Critics observe these patterns and blame students for refusing to prepare for college. But this criticism assumes students understand they are not prepared; and know how to prepare, and then just fail to do what is needed. Regrettably, many high school students do not have access to good information. In low-income communities where adults have not completed college and public schools are often under-resourced, students have no one to turn to for information or support.

More information, along with early testing, could give students a healthier shot at being prepared.

The Dayton Early College Academy, a 426-student high school at the University of Dayton ( Ohio), opened in 2003 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, gives college placement tests to ninth-grade students to identify skill needs early. If more students took college placement tests earlier in their educational journey, they would still have time to take college-prep courses. An early testing model would be one way to give students more time to work on knowledge or skills that they would then realize they lack.

Misconception #4: stigma-free remediation

Thomas Bailey, a Columbia University researcher, found more than two-thirds of community college students are guided into remedial courses to bring their academic achievement up to the level required by bachelor’s degree programs. In fact, the percentage of students in remedial college courses through colleges in urban areas is more than 90 percent. But remedial classes do not give credit toward a college degree. Research doesn’t show if these courses help students. And those with deficiencies in several subjects can fail to complete the remedial sequence and drop out of college without earning a single college credit. Bailey’s 2009 study found that just 29 percent of students who took the lowest level of reading remediation and only 17 percent of those in the lowest levels of math, successfully completed a remedial course sequence.

Placement tests are required for all students entering community college with degree goals, but most are unaware of the importance of the test.

When Bailey asked students if they had taken any classes on a remedial list, 74 percent were either wrong or unsure whether these courses counted toward their degree. Among students taking three or more remedial courses, the confusion was 80 percent.

Colleges consciously combat the stigma of remediation, but often are not clear in regard to procedures and accumulation of college credits. Many college catalogs don’t show “developmental” courses as not giving college credit. Students believe a “two-year associate’s degree” will take two years, but it actually averages 3.5 years in community colleges, even for full-time students, according to James Rosenbaum, Regina Deil Amen and Ann E. Person in After Admission, written in 2006.

What the future holds

Georgetown University ’s Center on Education and the Workforce states in its Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018 that:

By 2018, the economy will create 46.8 million openings, 13.8 million brand-new jobs and 33 million replacement jobs, positions vacated by workers who have retired or permanently left their occupations. Nearly two-thirds of the 46.8 million jobs, some 63 percent, will require workers with at least some college education. About 33 percent will require a bachelor’s degree or better, while 30 percent will require some college or a two-year associate’s degree. Only 36 percent will require workers with just a high school diploma or less.

The job market does look hopeful, but not if every student earns a bachelor’s degree. If high school counselors and teachers were given accurate information and authorized to do so, they could advise students who are unlikely to earn a bachelor’s degree as to the risky path ahead. Furthermore, they would be able to provide information about certificates and associate’s degrees that lead to desirable jobs, and could also lead to bachelor’s degrees. There are many desirable options that present fewer obstacles, fewer debts and offer respectable paths to further advancement. School boards could help these changes occur by clarifying what is expected from all parties involved as well as what the community’s expectations are for graduates. For an example of how this is being done, see “Committed to transformation,” page 20.

Chart A

High-paying associates degrees*
Radiation therapist       $74,200
Dental hygienist           $67,400
Fashion designer          $65,000
Registered nurse          $63,800
Medical sonographer    $63,000
Funeral director            $54,500
Electrical drafters        $52,100
*Bureau of Labor Statistics (2009)

Low-paying bachelor’s degrees+
Accounting      $46,000
Agriculture       $42,600
Education         $34,900
Criminal justice $35,000
Journalism        $36,600
+Wall Street Journal (2013)

Chart B Student college plans*

Attend College            99%
No college plans           1%
4-year degree   89%
*Rosenbaum” How students make college plans


American Medical Association, Careers in Health Care: Health Care Income Ranges. (2010)

Atwell, P., & David Lavin, “Passing the Torch: Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay Off Across the Generations.” Russell Sage Foundation (2006)

Thomas Bailey, “Addressing the Needs of Underprepared Students,” CCRC Currents, (April 2009)

Barton, Paul, E. Barton & Richard J. Coley, “Windows on Achievement and Inequality.” Princeton Educational Testing Service (2008)

Sandy Baum, Ma, Jennifer Ma, & Kathleen Payea, “Education Pays 2010: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society.” New York College Board (2010)

David B. Bils, “The Sociology of Education and Work.” Blackwell Publishers, London (2004)

Anthony P. Carnevale, Nicole Smith & Jeff Strohl, “Projections of Jobs and Education, 2010 requirements through 2018.” Georgetown University, Center on Education and the Workforce:

Burton R. Clark, “The ‘Cooling Out’ Function in Higher Education.” American Journal of Sociology (1960)

Stefanie ,DeLuca   & James E. Rosenbaum, “Individual Agency and the Life Course: Do Low-SES Students get Less long-term payoff for their School Efforts” Sociological Focus (2001)

Francesca .Di Meglio, “College: Big investment, paltry return,” Businessweek, (June 28, 2010)

W. Norton Grubb, “Working in the Middle: Strengthening Education and Training for the Mid-Skilled LaborForce(1996)

Louis Jacobson & Christine Mohler, “Pathways to Boosting the Earnings of Low-income Students by Increasing Their Educational Attainment” (2009)

G.D. Kutz, “For-profit colleges.” U.S. Government Accountability Office ( Aug. 7, 2010)

David E. Marcotte, Thomas Baily, Carey Borkosky & Greg Kienzl, “The Returns of a Community College Education: Evidence from the National Longitudinal Survey,” Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis (2005)

Andrew Martin & Andrew Lehren, “A Generation Hobbled by College Debt,”New York Times (May 12, 2012)

Mark Mittlehauser, “The Outlook for College Graduates, 1996-2006,” Occupational Outlook Quarterly (1998)

National Commission on the High School Senior Year (2001)

Basmat Parsad, Debbie Alexander, Elizabeth Farris, Lisa Hudson & Bernard Greene, “High School Guidance Counseling,” (2003)

Julie Redline Bruch and James E. Rosenbaum, “School Job Placement: Can it Avoid Reproducing Social Inequities,” Teachers College Record (2010)

James E. Rosenbaum, Reguna   Deil-Amen and Ann E. Person, “After Admission” Russell Sage Foundation (2006)

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