Below is an excerpt from the Overview section of this week's CQ Researcher report entitled "The Value of a College Education: Is a four-year degree the only path to a secure future?" by Thomas J. Billitteri, November 20, 2009
Mike Rowe, host of the cable-TV show “Dirty Jobs,” has a thing or two to say about work and education.
For 30 years, writes Rowe, whose show profiles some of the more challenging sides of blue-collar work, “we've convinced ourselves that ‘good jobs’ are the result of a four-year degree. That's bunk. Not all knowledge comes from college.” [Footnote 1]
Rowe's plainspoken view contradicts the lofty advice routinely dispensed to young people, that a bachelor's degree is a fundamental requirement for achieving the American Dream.
But with college costs soaring, skilled jobs such as welders and medical technicians in demand and millions of young adults ill-prepared for the rigors of a university education, some policy experts argue that while post-high-school education is vital in today's global economy, a four-year degree may be unnecessary for economic security — and perhaps even ill-advised.
“In many cases, young people think they are going to make substantial income just by having a college degree,” says Edwin L. Herr, a professor emeritus of education at Pennsylvania State University and co-author of Other Ways to Win, a book that analyzes alternatives to the traditional bachelor's degree. “There are a lot of people destined for unhappiness if we simply say that everybody ought to go to college. I don't think society in general requires everybody to go to college. It certainly requires people who have skills, and there certainly are ways to obtain those skills other than a four-year college.”
The Obama administration seems to agree. Under his American Graduation Initiative, announced in July, President Barack Obama is calling for an additional 5 million community college graduates by 2020, including those who earn associate degrees or certificates or who go on to graduate from four-year institutions. Beyond that, he wants every American to commit to at least a year of higher education or career training, whether at a community college or a four-year school, or through a vocational program or apprenticeship. [Footnote 2]
The United States had the highest percentages of college graduates in the world for most of the post-World War II era, but now the rates remain stagnant, according to the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation for Education. About 39 percent of U.S. adults hold a two- or four-year degree, but in some countries, including Japan and South Korea, more than half of young adults ages 25 to 34 hold degrees, a foundation report said. “Even more disturbing for the U.S.,” it added, “rates in these other countries continue to climb while ours remain stagnant.”
Lumina estimated that at current college-graduation rates, “there will be a shortage of 16 million college-educated adults in the American workforce by 2025.” [Footnote 3]
Obama proposes to spend a record $12 billion over the next decade to strengthen the nation's system of 1,200 community colleges, part of a larger goal to restore the United States as the leader in college graduates by 2020.
“[F]or a long time there have been politicians who have spoken of training as a silver bullet and college as a cure-all,” Obama said. “It's not, and we know that.” But, he added, “We know that in the coming years, jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college experience. We will not fill those jobs — or even keep those jobs here in America — without the training offered by community colleges.” [Footnote 4]
To be sure, a bachelor's degree is a laudable goal for many young adults, one that can pay big dividends in personal satisfaction, career opportunities and earnings. In 2007 people with a bachelor's degree earned an average $57,181, or 63 percent more than those with some college or an associate's degree and 83 percent more than those with only a high-school diploma. [Footnote 5] And the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 4.9 percent in September for adults 25 and older with a bachelor's degree or higher, compared with 8.5 percent for those with less college and 10.8 percent for those with only a high-school education. [Footnote 6]
Types of Community Colleges, Enrollment and Demographics
Still, a four-year degree is not always the best option, workforce and public-policy experts argue.
For one thing, many students simply aren't cut out for college. “No one wants to really talk about this, but a lot of [teens] come out of high school unprepared to do legitimate college-level work,” says Kenneth C. Gray, a Pennsylvania State emeritus professor of education and coauthor with Herr of Other Ways to Win.
At the same time, four years of college demands a steep investment that may take years to recoup. In-state tuition, fees and room and board at a public four-year college now average $15,213 per year, up 5.9 percent in a year, though student aid often lowers the tab. At private schools, the bill — not counting any aid — runs $35,636 per year, up 4.3 percent in a year. [Footnote 7]
And a bachelor's degree is no guarantee of career success or upward mobility. Much may depend on the field of study. For instance, degrees in health care, computer science or engineering may offer far better prospects than those in the humanities.
Meanwhile, many good jobs simply don't require a bachelor's degree. About half of all employment is in so-called middle-skill occupations — jobs that require more than a high-school diploma but less than a four-year degree, according to a 2007 study by Robert Lerman, an economics professor at American University, and Harry J. Holzer, a professor at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute. Demand for such workers will likely remain strong compared to the supply, they said. [Footnote 8]
“Real pay for radiological technicians increased 23 percent between 1997 and 2005, speech/respiratory therapists saw real increases of 10 to 14 percent and real pay for electricians rose by 18 percent,” they found. “These increases compare very favorably with the overall 5 percent increase for the average American worker.” [Footnote 9]
In June, in the depths of the current economic downturn, The New York Times noted that “employers are begging for qualified applicants for certain occupations, even in hard times.” [Footnote 10] Most of the jobs take years of experience, the newspaper noted. But some jobs in high demand, such as those in welding, don't require four years of college.
“Not everyone needs a degree, and not every job requires a four-year degree,” says Tony Zeiss, president of Central Piedmont Community College, a six-campus institution in and around Charlotte, N.C., with more than 70,000 part- and full-time students. “For decades, only about 22 percent of jobs have required a baccalaureate degree or higher, and yet 75 percent of the jobs consistently require training beyond high school but below a baccalaureate. That's community college.”
Still, whether community colleges, which get most of their money from recession-battered state and local governments, can keep up with demand remains an open question, especially as the Obama administration puts them at the center of his postsecondary education policy. [Footnote 11]
Nearly 40 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in college last year, a record number that was propelled by swelling community college attendance, according to Pew Research Center data reported by The New York Times. [Footnote 12]
“At the same time that we have tremendous increases in enrollment, states are cutting budgets like crazy,” says Norma G. Kent, vice president for communications at the American Association of Community Colleges. “Our tradition has been to do more with less, but there gets to be a stretching point beyond which you cannot go. Our credo is open access and open doors, and whether consciously or de facto, we are turning away students.”In California, community colleges lost $840 million in state funding in the combined fiscal 2008–2009 and 2009–2010 budgets, according to Scott Lay, president and CEO of the Community College League of California. Institutions face eliminating course offerings and turning away students, he says. “We believe when this all shakes out, total enrollment will drop by about 250,000 students,” or 8.6 percent, by the 2010–2011 academic year, Lay says.
High-school vocational education programs have long offered the potential for non-college-bound students to learn the fundamentals of a marketable trade or craft, and then move directly into the job market or on to further training at a community college, technical school or even a four-year institution. Yet for decades “vo-ed” programs — typically wood shop or auto repair — carried a stigma, often unfairly, as a dumping ground for low achievers. In recent years, however, many vocational education programs have been transformed into progressive “career and technical education” (CTE) programs that integrate core academic training in math, reading and other essentials into job-specific courses like computer programming, medical technology, restaurant and hotel management and construction.
“Historically, there's been a real divide between the academic and vocational side,” says Julian Alssid, executive director of the Workforce Strategy Center in New York, a national nonprofit group that focuses on making education and workforce development more responsive to the economy. But, he adds, “we're seeing much more melding” of academic and technical training in career and technical programs.
* Is a four-year college degree necessary for financial security?
* Are high-school career and technical-education programs adequately preparing students for upward mobility?
* Can community colleges meet rising demand for their programs?
 Mike Rowe, “Work Is Not the Enemy.”
 “Remarks of President Barack Obama, Address to Joint Session of Congress,” The White House, Feb. 24, 2009.
 “A Stronger Nation through Higher Education,” Lumina Foundation for Education, February 2009. The Lumina Foundation said its data source is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, “Education at a Glance 2008.”
 “Remarks of President Barack Obama,” op. cit. For background, see Scott W. Wright, “Community Colleges,” CQ Researcher, April 21, 2000, pp. 329–352.
 U.S. Census Bureau.
 Bureau of Labor Statistics, Oct. 2, 2009.
 “Trends in College Pricing 2009,” College Board.
 Harry J. Holzer and Robert Lerman, “America's Forgotten Middle-Skill Jobs,” Workforce Alliance, November 2007. Holzer and Lerman are both scholars at the Urban Institute.
 Louis Uchitelle, “Despite Recession, High Demand for Skilled Labor,” The New York Times, June 24, 2009.
 For background on jobs and the economy, see the following CQ Researcher reports: Alan Greenblatt, “State Budget Crisis,” Sept. 11, 2009, pp. 741–764; Peter Katel, “Vanishing Jobs,” March 13, 2009, pp. 225–248; Marcia Clemmitt, “Public-Works Projects,” Feb. 20, 2009, pp. 153–176; Kenneth Jost, et al., “The Obama Presidency,” Jan. 30, 2009, pp. 73–104; Peter Katel, “Straining the Safety Net,” July 31, 2009, pp. 645–668.
 Tamar Lewin, “College Enrollment Set Record in 2008,” The New York Times, Oct. 30, 2009.
For more information see the CQ Researcher report on "The Value of a College Education" [subscription required] or purchase the CQ Researcher PDF