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Question the Conventional Wisdom about College Degrees

Mary Clare Reim

Conventional wisdom says that students need a four-year degree to make it in today’s economy. But do the numbers back that up?

According to a new study released by the Department of Education, students who pursue an occupational credential (an education that is career-centered) are more likely to be employed than those who get an academic credential.

This suggests that recent efforts to encourage more individuals to pursue college (President Barack Obama said that all Americans should have at least some postsecondary education) may be misguided. The data also suggest that the administration’s antagonism toward more career-focused educational tracks—often provided by for-profit trade schools and community colleges—is misplaced.

Instead, these new data underscore the need for more diversity and innovation in the higher education sphere.

Academia Vs. Value

The study uses data from the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study (BPS), which tracked students who had enrolled in college for the first time.

Researchers surveyed students starting in 2003 and tracked their progress through 2009. By the end of that six-year period, the study found that a greater proportion of students who earned an occupational credential were employed.

Additionally, 74 percent of those employed students with an occupational credential were in jobs related to their field of study, compared to just 53 percent of employed students who earned an academic credential.

These data illustrate the need for change in the way policymakers think about higher education. With college tuition at an all-time high and with over 3.6 million students defaulting on their student loans, students need alternative options for upward mobility now more than ever. Decoupling accreditation from federal financing creates a much-needed relationship between the education students are getting and the jobs they seek upon graduation.

Unfortunately, our system currently reinforces the idea that a four-year bachelor’s degree is the only way to get ahead in today’s economy, regardless of the price or what a student actually wants to pursue.

Getting Graduates Back to Work

Reforming the outdated accreditation system could help fix this problem. The Higher Education Reform and Opportunity (HERO) Act championed by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., would be a significant step in removing the barriers to innovation in higher education.

Under this plan, states would have the flexibility to allow any entity, such as a business, to accredit and credential courses of study and individual courses, and students would still have the ability to access federal student aid.

Importantly, this could extend to the business community to allow those with more discrete knowledge of their field to accredit programs or even individual courses. The policy of “decoupling” (or separating) college accreditation from federal financing creates a much-needed relationship between the education students are getting and the jobs they seek upon graduation. As Lee explained:

Today, the federal government restricts access to higher education and inflates its cost, ensuring unfairly to the advantage of special interests at the expense of students, teachers, and taxpayers. The federal government does this through its control over college accreditation. Because eligibility for federal student loans is tied to the federal accreditation regime, we shut out students who want to learn, teachers who want to teach, transformative technologies, and cost-saving innovations.
… my plan would give states a new option to enter into agreements with the Department of Education to create their own, alternative accreditation systems to open up new options for students qualifying for federal aid.
… accreditation could also be available to specialized programs, individual courses, apprenticeships, professional credentialing, and even competency-based tests. States could accredit online courses or hybrid models with elements on- and off-campus.

Additionally, decoupling federal financing from accreditation would encourage new and innovative models of higher education to emerge. In a country where high school graduates represent drastically different backgrounds, interests, and skill sets, it seems shortsighted to assume that everyone should pursue the same four-year bachelor’s degree no matter what their career and life goals are.

Although college is the right choice for many, some students would be much better off earning their degree online or attending a vocational school to learn a specific skill—or some combination of all three.

These personalized options can be significantly less expensive than a four-year bachelor’s degree and can take a fraction of the time to complete. Breaking apart the higher education cartel that reinforces the status quo is an essential first step to providing better and cheaper options for students.

This study from the Department of Education should inform policymakers in their understanding of occupational education options.

While academic tracks have been successful in getting many students on the path to upward mobility, students need more options to fit their unique skills and goals. Expanding education options by reforming our accreditation system would be a meaningful first step.

Reprinted from The Daily Signal

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