Daily Camera (Boulder)

The qualified case for college

- By J.H. Cullum Clark Cullum Clark is the director of the Bush Institute-southern Methodist University Economic Growth Initiative. This is distribute­d by Insidesour­ces.com.

Like the film “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” today’s narratives on higher education contain both happy and unhappy elements, five of which can be summarized as “four myths and a truth.”

Myth number one is that most college students major in esoteric fields that do little to enhance their career prospects. The truth: More than 60% of 2021 four-year college graduates majored in STEM, business or other technical fields associated with in-demand, high-paying jobs, based on Bush Institute analysis of Department of Education statistics.

A second myth is that growing proportion­s of graduates are stuck in lowpaying jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the share of graduates who fit this descriptio­n has held steady at 10% to 15% for decades.

Myth number three is that the college premium — the additional earnings of bachelor’s degree graduates over people with only a high school diploma — is due to the “signaling” effect people convey to employers rather than what they learn while enrolled. The truth: Two-thirds of the college premium reflects skills learned or enhanced in college, according to research by University of Pennsylvan­ia economist Hanming Fang.

A fourth myth is that most students could attain the same wages through non-degree industry-recognized certificat­ions (IRCS) rather than bachelor’s or two-year associate degree programs.

A 2022 University of Texas at Austin study of young Texas workers found that certain in-demand IRCS deliver a 10% to 15% premium over the average high school graduate’s wages, while most IRCS bring no wage benefit in the absence of a postsecond­ary degree.

But higher education narratives contain one important truth: More and more people are joining living wage, upwardly mobile occupation­s based on two-year associate degrees. The number of such workers has grown more than 80% since 1991.

Contrary to narratives presented by college skeptics, young workers continue to enjoy the earnings benefits of college degrees. Bachelor’s graduates between the ages of 22 and 27 earn approximat­ely 70% more than peers who stopped out after high school, according to a 2022 Pew Research study.

These facts make a strong, though qualified, economic case for college. Benefits easily exceed costs — provided students learn useful, in-demand skills, preferably in programs associated with well-defined career pathways.

Only 30% of young people from families earning less than $50,000 enroll in four-year institutio­ns, compared with 80% of families earning more than $100,000. Just 70% of students attending four-year colleges graduate within six years.

At two-year colleges, most never earn a degree or credential, according to Brookings. For community college students from families in the lowest-income fifth of the population, the completion rate is just 9%.

Studies point to barriers standing in the way of college enrollment and completion for many low-to-moderate-income students:

• Informatio­n: Many high schoolers have inadequate informatio­n on opportunit­ies and pathways for accessing them. College students often face too many choices with little advice or clarity regarding career paths.

• Physical access: Most low-income students travel less than 70 miles from home for college, which means people without nearby options are less likely to enroll and persist.

• Money: Despite America’s generous financial aid programs, the top reasons young people give for not enrolling are that they can’t afford it and must work.

Twenty-first-century America needs a higher education sector offering a fast-changing, kaleidosco­pic range of programs that prepare students of all background­s for many evolving occupation­s.

Federal and state policymake­rs should create funding streams for colleges and universiti­es to develop clear career pathways, link lending policies to student majors, and promote alternativ­e accreditat­ion systems to invite disruptive innovators into the postsecond­ary ecosystem.

As for higher education institutio­ns, America’s colleges and universiti­es are in the fifth inning of a long evolution. They are evolving away from their origins as elite institutio­ns preparing homogeneou­s student bodies for a handful of occupation­s and toward a future as innovative engines of talent developmen­t and upward mobility for a diverse society of lifelong learners.

From the land-grant university system initiated under Abraham Lincoln to the GI Bill and the Pell Grant program, expanding college access has been a cornerston­e of American public policy and a towering success. America should double down on this longtime commitment because college remains an excellent bet even as it evolves.

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