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A college degree is no longer always the best pathway to the middle class. That might be a good thing

April 5, 2022, 9:30 AM UTC
A young woman and recent college graduate stares pensively into the distance.
"Rapid increases in college costs, coupled with a strong labor market, have made the payoff for a college degree no longer a sure thing," writes Lindsay Daugherty.
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For decades, higher education and a bachelor’s degree have been viewed as crucial, near essential stepping stones to the sorts of earnings that would grant someone access to the middle class and beyond. But more than half of Americans still have not, and likely will not, receive four-year degrees; in 2021, college enrollment actually declined

Part of this drop is surely due to the pandemic, but deeper trends persist: Tuition costs have increased by more than 500% since the 1980s, and many students end up with student loan debt that takes decades to pay off. At the same time, businesses are hiring and wages are rising, so the cost of taking time off work to earn a degree is higher, too. It’s no wonder that many Americans seem to be questioning the value of a college degree.  

There are, in fact, many pathways to the middle class, and not all of them run through four-year degree programs. Colleges, continuing education training providers, and even employers now offer an array of short-term credential programs. Most of these require fewer than two years of coursework, and offer opportunities to more or less immediately move into good jobs. Such programs grant individuals credentials like certificates, or short-term educational credentials that often come with college credit; industry certifications, in careers as varied as engineering, nursing, and human resources; and apprenticeships in fields like health care, IT, and welding. 

Research indicates that these shorter-term, nondegree credentials often lead to increases in earnings of $2,000 to $6,500 per year, while costing a fraction of what college tuition does, on average—two-year public colleges charge on average about$3,800 a year, versus $9,400 for four-year public college. About a quarter of students enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs will take at least six years to graduate, which means they could easily spend more than $50,000, compared to less than $5,000 for many nondegree credentials.

Students who start their post-high school education with these short-term technical credentials can also use them to work towards degrees. Colleges are increasingly embracing “stackable” programs that allow individuals to take the initial college credit from their certificate program and add to it (or “stack” on top of it) to eventually earn an applied associates or bachelor’s degree. Evidence from Ohio shows that those who started with a nondegree credential and went on to earn another credential saw more than $9,000 in additional earnings each year. 

While four-year degrees still most often result in careers with the highest earnings, not all degrees have the same value. Those who earn a bachelor’s degree in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), architecture, business, and health care fields tend to earn more over their lifetimes, while those with liberal arts and humanities degrees tend to have lower earnings. And for associates degrees, credentials in technical, occupation-specific fields like health care and engineering technology tend to pay better than degrees in general education and liberal arts. Of course, there is also wide variation in the payoff to nondegree credentials, so it’s important for individuals to be discerning. Tools like the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard can help Americans to assess the value of different college credentials and institutions by comparing information on earnings and costs. 

But looking only at tuition and earnings doesn’t tell the whole story about the value of college credentials. When you factor in lost wages and the high dropout rates in many degree programs, some shorter-term nondegree programs can begin to look a lot more valuable. And there are many benefits to gaining new credentials that are impossible to capture in measures of value, including better working conditions, improved health, and lower incarceration rates. The “value” of a better work environment, a more stable and flexible life, or simply a more fulfilling job cannot simply be measured by an overall increase in earnings. After all, much of what’s most important in life money can’t buy. 

Is college still the best path to the middle class? It’s complicated. College credentials still do lead many to increased earnings, but the rapid increases in college costs, coupled with such a strong labor market, have made the payoff for a college degree no longer a sure thing. The fact is there are multiple paths to the middle class, and shorter-term technical certificates and applied associates degrees may be better options for some—particularly working adults, parents, and those with limited time and money to devote to college. It’s important that Americans act as informed, responsible consumers, and think carefully about all the different pathways, the costs and benefits of different colleges and credentials, before deciding to enroll. 

Lindsay Daugherty is a senior policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Her research focuses on issues related to workforce development and college access and success.  

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