This is a sequel to an earlier blog. Americans increasingly reject the notion that to be successful in life you have to obtain a college degree. Total enrollment in traditional forms of higher education has declined for the last seven years. Under financial pressure, even highly respected four year colleges are contemplating closing or merging with other institutions, most recently Massachusetts Hampshire College. Low college graduation rates, rising tuition fees and stories of crushing student loan debts have led many students to forego traditional postsecondary training.
Moreover, going to college has other risks. The New York Federal Reserve Bank suggests the underemployment rate among recent college graduates exceeds 40 percent two out of every five are in jobs very often filled by those with much less education. For all college graduates, the proportion exceeds one-third. Census data suggest only one out of 150 taxi drivers in 1970 had a bachelors degree or more, compared with about 24 by 2010 and no doubt more today. Do you really need a college degree to be a taxi or Uber driver?
To be sure, a high school education is not enough for many types of jobssome specialized training is needed for many relatively high paying occupations such as welding, paramedic, court reporter or driving long distance trucks. Non-degree granting vocational schools, much disparaged by some as providing inferior education, are a too often ignored option for many high school students without an interest or sometimes perhaps even an aptitude for traditional book-intensive college learning.
The Gallup Organization last September and October surveyed some 3,203 alumni of nine schools belonging to the Career Education Colleges and Universities (CECU) organization about their experiences gained taking certificated non-degree vocational training. They then compared the results with another smaller Gallup sample of recent recipients of associate degrees from community colleges.
The findings are startling. Among those employed at the time of the survey, the median annual income of the career college alumni was $44,622, some 62 % more than before they received career college training. That 62 % equals most of the earnings advantage associated with spending four or five years earning a bachelors degree after high school, but typically involves a vastly shorter training period. Nearly three-quarters of those employed in the sample did work related to their training, a larger proportion than for those with associate degrees from community colleges. Half of the career college sample had what they perceived to be a good job within six months of completing their training (compared with 29 percent of the associate degree holders).
Moreover, on average those attending non-degree vocational programs found their work more fulfilling and engaging. Some 70 % agreed (most of them strongly) I am deeply interested in the work that I do. For community college degree holders, the proportion was 58 %. Also, the career college alumni had higher levels of multiple forms of non-financial well-being, for example having pride in the community in which they lived. Most career college graduates were generally satisfied with their experience and would recommend it to others.
Interestingly, many of the career colleges have historically been for-profit schools. Success for stockholders comes by keeping customers happy, in order to make profits and grow. During the Obama years, intense regulatory harassment of these schools forced many to close or to try to avoid invasive scrutiny by converting to not-for-profit status. For-profit schools have immense skin in the game, since they derive virtually all their money from tuition fees. The student is Job One indeed the only job, unlike at many universities interested in multiple objectives, everything from research prowess to success for the football team.
A large proportion (58 %) of those surveyed by Gallup were members of minority groups and 71 % were first generation postsecondary students. Racial performance differences were minimal. For example, the median annual income rose 62 % for black and 59 % for Hispanic students after completing their program.
To be sure, a large portion of high school graduates benefit from a traditional college education. But why do guidance counselors and college representatives continue to push traditional expensive degree programs on students for whom historical experience suggest the risks are high and benefits highly uncertain?