COLUMN: Great jobs without a four-year degree

By Kathy Kersten

Guest Columnist

What’s a sure-fire way to guarantee your child’s success in life after high school? Ask almost any Minnesota parent, and you’re likely to hear the same confident answer: a four-year college degree.

For years, our society has been telling kids and parents that a four-year degree is optimal for all, and the only path to career success. Alternative routes—like two-year associate’s degrees, apprenticeships, and certificate programs—are viewed as second-tier, for those who “can’t cut it.”

Of course, a four-year degree is an excellent choice for many young people. But too many are enrolling at four-year institutions because they feel pressured to do so. Often, they accumulate heavy debts and then drop out, lacking the skills they need for an in-demand, well-paying job.

Many families would probably approach their teenagers’ post-secondary planning differently if they knew two key facts. Here’s the first: about 49 percent of young Minnesotans enter a four-year college after high school, but only 22 percent of jobs in our state require a bachelor’s degree or more.

In other words, there is a striking disconnect between the educational requirements of the jobs in demand and the educational pursuits of our state’s young people. Consider this: a quarter of all bartenders in Minnesota have a four-year college degree. More than 100,000 college-educated Minnesotans are working as retail salespeople, waiting tables, and working as maids and janitors—all jobs that require a high school degree or less—according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Of course, a four-year degree may have value beyond the financial rewards it brings. But in 2014, the average debt of a student at a four-year institution in Minnesota was almost $32,000.  The typical repayment cost of that loan, over 20 years, would be almost $58,000—a significant constraint on a young person’s financial future.

Here’s the second fact families should know:  Career-preparation pathways like two-year associate’s degrees, apprenticeships, and certificates can enable young people to get a fulfilling, well-paying job fast, avoid crippling debt, and be assured of a strong future in an in-demand industry—with the opportunity to build on that education going forward, sometimes at their employer’s expense.

In some cases, young people who choose these routes—becoming, say, plumbers, electrical power line installers, power plant operators, nurses, medical sonographers, or dental hygienists—can earn significantly more than they would with certain college degrees.

Where can parents and students go to learn more about their options? The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development offers great resources, including a paper entitled “What To Know Before You Owe” and a remarkable on-line “Graduate Employment Outcomes” tool, which shows how many Minnesota graduates are finding jobs in a range of occupations and at what wages.

Young Minnesotans need to be aware of all their opportunities before they make expensive, post-secondary education decisions. That’s why Center of the American Experiment, a public policy institution in Minneapolis, has launched a new project called “Great Jobs without a Four-Year Degree: What It Means for Students, Parents and Employers.”

The project’s mission is to ensure that students and parents know about the many exciting, fulfilling paths to career success, and to emphasize the importance of honoring and respecting those who choose them for their vital contributions to our society.

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Katherine Kersten is a senior policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment.