A college degree has long been the key that unlocks success in America—the good job, the high salary, the professional networks. But many individuals reflecting on their educational experiences today conclude that their preparation for college and career was disappointing. In short, there’s a disconnect between what young people expect from education and what they ultimately experience.

Young people are experiencing an educational version of buyers’ remorse—the disappointment arising from the gap between their expectations and reality. There are two ways to address this problem. At the individual level, we should provide alternate frameworks for individuals deciding what comes after high school. And at the institutional level, we should embrace a K–12 career pathways approach that helps young people develop occupational identities and vocational selves and exemplifies opportunity pluralism, or offering multiple, credentialed alternatives to a college degree that place individuals on a path to satisfying careers and responsible citizenship.

Almost two-thirds of U.S. high school graduates enroll immediately in some form of postsecondary education with a clear-cut motive. In 2019, 83.5% of entering freshmen said that getting a better job was a “very important” reason for attending college, up from a 1976 low of 68%. Are these expectations realized? Mostly no.

According to Strada Education Network and Gallup, as of 2017, only about a third of college students strongly agreed that they’d graduate with the skills and knowledge needed for jobs and workplace success. Just half strongly agreed their major would lead to a good job. Many people would change at least one postsecondary decision they made: 36% their major; 28% their institution; 12% their degree. Only 26% strongly agreed that their education was relevant to their career and day-to-day life. Millennials (now numbering over 72 million) are particularly disenchanted. Reflecting on their high school education, only 39% of college attendees think they were prepared to succeed in college or postsecondary coursework.

Meanwhile, more than half of Americans believe higher education is headed in the wrong direction, while only 20% believe it’s headed in the right direction. What’s more, 67% of Americans believe postsecondary institutions put their own institutional interests first, compared to a slim minority of those who believe they put students (9%) or the greater good (4%) first.

This consumer perspective collides with what college leaders think: 96% of chief academic officers believe that their institutions are very or somewhat effective at preparing students for the workforce.

Remarkably, this disenchantment exists despite much research showing that college graduates earn far more over a lifetime than nongraduates. This “college earnings premium” fluctuated over the past century and varies by degree type, ethnicitygeography, and gender, but never disappeared.

In addition, when compared with high school graduates, degree holders have lower rates of poverty and unemployment, a higher likelihood of having health insurance and retirement plan, and a longer life expectancy. The Commission to Build a Heathier America reports that on average, college graduates live at least five years longer than those who did not complete high school.

What to make of this?

A college degree produces a substantial wage premium and is associated with significant benefits for individuals, their children, and society. Research by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton suggest that the higher income associated with a degree does bring individuals a life they think is better—but these emotional benefits have an “income satiation” point after which they level off.

Given the many individual and societal benefits of higher education, what if students took a different approach to choosing a college? And what if the K–12 system took a different approach to preparing students for careers and postsecondary opportunities?

Harvard economist Raj Chetty and colleagues at Opportunity Insights have suggested that while a college degree is a dependable path to upward social and economic mobility, especially for young people from low-income backgrounds, this varies across institutions.

Their mobility report cards (not without criticism) provide a useful snapshot of how individual colleges are promoting or hindering long-term economic success for low-income students. Rather than focusing exclusively on college graduation as a success metric, this approach emphasizes intergenerational upward economic mobility, or the degree to which children economically exceed, or lag behind, their parents. Knowing how well an institution accomplishes this is important information for students (and parents) to consider.

Three findings emerge.

First, mobility rates differ across postsecondary institutions because low-income students’ access to them varies. For example, 16% of the State University of New York at Stony Brook students are from the bottom income quintile, compared with a 4% average at elite institutions like Harvard or Stanford, even with generous financial aid.

Second, institutions can create a level playing field for students from different socioeconomic backgrounds . For example, about 60% of Columbia University students from both low- and high-income families reach the top 20% of earners.

Third, the report cards reveal significant differences in mobility by race. For example, Black and Native American children have substantially lower rates of upward mobility, leaving them “stuck in place across generations.”

Choosing the right college is only part of the story. Deciding what—if any—education to pursue after high school is more complicated than ever. And it’s not just high school graduates who worry about education. Many adults are “upskilling” and seek the right educational environment. These decisions have lasting consequences. For example, the average 2017 college loan borrower will have about $37,000 in debt after graduation, with the average bachelor’s degree holder taking 21 years to repay federal student loans.

The reason why students are choosing to seek further education is therefore critically important. Michael Horn and Bob Moesta, fellows at the Clayton Christensen Institute, interviewed over 200 individuals and surveyed more than 1,000 students, collecting detailed stories on motivations for pursuing postsecondary education. They categorized these findings using the “jobs to be done theory.” They suggest five “jobs” individuals hire postsecondary education providers to do for them, helping them to: get into the best school; do what’s expected; get away from a current situation; step it up into a better life situation; extend themselves; or learn for learning’s sake. Knowing why a student is pursuing education can help them choose the right program or institution by clarifying their needs.

Finding a well-paying job doesn’t necessarily require a bachelor’s degree. While it’s become a proxy for employability, only around one-third of American adults possess one. The value attached to the degree leads individuals to think that nothing less can yield nearly as good an outcome. But there are “opportunity rich” employment options for those without a four-year degree that move individuals into the middle class and careers worth having.

According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, there are about 65 million existing “good jobs” that don’t require a degree and pay at least $35,000 annually for those aged 25 to 44 and $45,000 for those in the 45 to 64 range, when 2016 American median earnings were $65,000. Some earning six figures may not view such jobs as “good,” but a great many people manage to get by, and even thrive, with them.

These analysts also acquired data from Burning Glass Technologies, tracking labor market data and talent. Among the largest 25 livelihoods, at least nine—led by several occupations in health care and the skilled trades—are fully accessible to those without a four-year degree. For the other 16 occupations, there was no employer consensus regarding the education credentials needed for those jobs.

This lack of consensus may be due to labor market issues rather than the work’s true educational requirements. An employer’s requirement of a college degree may be a form of credential inflation, “an unnecessary barrier for [some] workers in some places relative to others,” according to a Cleveland Fed analysis. A more skills-based—or supply side—approach to hiring makes more sense, although some employers treat education credentials as “signals” of traits they value (e.g., persistence), even if there is no direct relationship between what’s learned and what the job demands. This matching process requires schools, colleges, and placement organizations build strong employer relationships so that potential workers get the right first job—without the requirement of an unnecessary credential.

Some programs are innovating in this way already, creating new career pathways programs for young people that integrate their K-12 education with employment and careers. These approaches include apprenticeships, internships, and career and technical education; dual enrollment in high school and postsecondary institutions, including job placement and training; career academies; boot camps that focus on acquiring discreet knowledge or skills; staffing, placement and other support services; and income-share agreements, allowing students to repay tuition after acquiring a good-paying job.

These programs offer faster and cheaper paths to jobs and careers, and they also foster opportunity pluralism, offering individuals multiple education, training, and credentialing pathways. Instead of equalizing opportunity on a single pathway, opportunity is broadened, valuing both education and employment outcomes. This approach also helps young people develop an occupational identity—the conscious awareness of themselves as workers—and hence a vocational self, a critical component of long-term job satisfaction.

Approaches like these help young people build the social capital—the networks—they need to prosper in life, propelling them to opportunity, general wellbeing, and responsible citizenship—all key dimensions of the American Dream. With all that in hand, there would be far less reason for widespread buyers’ remorse in education.

This piece is adapted from a longer essay in Education Next.

Bruno Manno
Bruno V. Manno is senior advisor for K–12 education at the Walton Family Foundation. The views expressed in this piece are not necessarily those of the foundation.
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