Washington Monthly - September/October 2015 - 66

T he new degrees are not without their critics. One rap against them is that they reinforce the notion that everyone must earn a bachelor's degree to be successful, unnecessarily prolonging time in school. It is certainly true that some technical degrees and certificates below the bachelor's degree generate impressive outcomes. Recent research by Mark Schneider of AIR showed that students in Texas and Colorado with one- and two-year certificates in applied engineering fields often out-earn their counterparts with bachelor's degrees and sustain that advantage even ten years out. But it is also true that, on average, people with bachelor's degrees fare better than their counterparts on just about every measure that matters: they earn more money, are less likely to be unemployed, and like their jobs better. Bachelor's degree holders are simply better positioned to weather recessions, execute career transitions, acquire new skills with If you need to make a quick exit from a group of academics, try sharing the opinion that undergraduate education should include a lot more vocational training. You'll soon find yourself standing alone or responding to accusations of classism and questions about your commitment to social and racial equality. the support of their employers, and be promoted. While a bachelor's degree is far from a guarantee of career success or economic security today, it is still the best insurance against poverty and insecurity that one can get. And the gap between BAs and quicker-to-get diplomas is growing. According to the Pew Research Center, in 1965 the earnings difference between young adults (ages 25-32) who earned a BA degree and those with a two-year degree or some college was about $5,000. By 2013, the difference had grown to $15,000, with the real earnings of the some-college/two-year degree group falling from $33,655 to $30,000 (in 2012 dollars).  Other skeptics worry that a new crop of degree options will just dilute the value of the BA even more-and this is a valid concern. The explosive growth of vocational programs at community and for-profit colleges over the last two decades should definitely give us pause. There is clearly strong 66 September/October 2015 demand for programs that promise to lead directly to jobs- the number of vocational certificates awarded by colleges doubled between 2001 and 2011-and while we know that many of these programs generate good outcomes for students, we also know that a large number of them are of very poor quality and leave students with unmanageable debt and rotten employment prospects. The ubiquity of the programs is also playing a role in the relentless credential creep that is driving up the educational requirements for jobs like administrative assistance and bookkeeping. Today, there are many schools that offer one-year certificates in dental hygiene. There are also programs that offer a two-year associate's degrees in dental hygiene. Now, some schools have even started offering a bachelor's of applied science in dental hygiene. And the differences among these are difficult to discern. Policymakers-state education agencies and accreditors- need to ensure that BAS degrees do not simply provide a way for colleges to stretch out programs that do not really require four years of education. Neither of my nephews was well served by a higher education system that is too rigid to meet their needs. Both could have used an opportunity to learn in a more engaged, hands-on style, enabling them to develop concrete skills and apply them in the real world. While those alternatives exist, too often we penalize students who choose a training program right out of high school, sending them down educational dead-ends. In Allen's case, he and his family spent tens of thousands of dollars on an education that took many years but has left little mark. Allen got that BA degree, and all of the long-term advantages that come with it, but one can't help wondering what other activities might have filled those six years of bored meandering in college repeating courses. What else could he have been doing that would have left him more fulfilled, motivated, and excited about the future? In Jeffrey's case, he has some solid skills and great experience under his belt, as well the confidence that comes with mastering a trade, but his future is constrained. It is often said in the United States that no member of Congress or leading CEO started their career in a community college technical training program-pathways to positions of leadership start with a bachelor's degree. Is this true because graduates of technical training programs are not fit to become leaders, or because we don't allow them to? Try saying the same thing to someone in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland. Many politicians, senior managers, and even CEOs have come up through those countries' impressive vocational training systems. The issue isn't that a career that starts with technical training can't lead to more advanced learning and skills. It is that our higher education policies simply don't allow for it-and that's just a failure of imagination. Mary Alice McCarthy is a senior policy analyst in the Education Policy Program at New America. She has worked at both the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor.

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Washington Monthly - September/October 2015

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