About two of five four-year college graduates in the Apollo Group/NJ Poll (38 percent) are the first in their families to receive a degree. On this question there was virtually no difference among whites (38 percent), blacks (41 percent), and Hispanics (39 percent).
MORE DEGREE OPTIONS
The public agrees that people should have more options for postsecondary education beyond the traditional book-learning baccalaureate degree. Three-fourths of the survey’s respondents said that it should be easier for colleges and universities to offer diplomas for programs that last only a few months to a year so that workers can upgrade their skills. A much smaller group (17 percent) said that colleges should resist such programs because they don’t offer much educational value for the cost.
A greater array of degree options is a logical answer to the troubling mismatch between job seekers and employers, which may explain why such a large majority of respondents favored it. Often, it is simply too difficult, too costly, and too time-consuming for minorities and people of lower incomes to earn a four-year degree. Professional certificates and associates degrees are a more accessible goal, but employers and even high school counselors sometimes sniff at those diplomas as lesser accomplishments.
The Obama administration is putting more emphasis on community colleges and professional degrees as a way to help employers who desperately need workers with specific skills. Coordination among employers and community colleges works beautifully in some areas. In central Florida, for example, the area’s defense-contracting and tourism industries are aligned closely with the area’s colleges, so much so that the professional degrees from those schools virtually ensure a smooth transition into a local, good-paying job. In other areas, however, employers complain that college administrators aren’t responsive to their needs. Andy Levin, a former workforce officer for the state of Michigan, said that some employers in his state have had to wait for more than a year for local community colleges to alter their curricula to match their immediate hiring needs.
Meanwhile, the colleges aren’t doing a good job of keeping their students enrolled. Only 56 percent of students who start at four-year colleges finish within six years, according to Education Department data analyzed last year by researchers at Harvard University. The percentage of graduates from community-college enrollees is half that, at 29 percent.
The available data on college graduates suffer from several major flaws, however. The Education Department’s data do not include part-time freshmen and new enrollees who have attended college before. The Chronicle of Higher Education estimates that the fate of 1.2 million students who entered college as freshmen in the fall of 2004 is unknown because they either dropped out or started at one school but graduated from another. Although these “unknowns” could be good targets for community-college and professional degrees, they also are a diverse group, making it difficult to collectively remove their barriers to graduation.
There isn’t one prevailing reason why people don’t complete four-year degrees. About one-fourth (23 percent) of NJ’s poll respondents who don’t have a four-year degree said “life events,” such as marriage and children, got in the way. Almost one-fifth (19 percent) said they are pursuing a degree or plan to pursue one later. Cost doesn’t seem to be a major factor in attending college; only 17 percent said they couldn’t afford it. Almost the same proportion (14 percent) said they preferred a job in the “real world.”
College is definitely on the minds of younger people who don’t have degrees. More than half of the respondents between 18 and 29 (51 percent) said they are pursuing degrees or plan to do so. Only 5 percent of the people in that age group said they preferred real-world jobs.
Most people do not blame the country’s employers for the “skills gap” that leaves thousands of jobs unfilled even during periods of high unemployment, suggesting an overall faith in American-style capitalism. Only 24 percent of poll respondents said that employers aren’t paying enough to attract qualified workers. The others cited a lack of properly trained workers (28 percent), poor coordination between colleges and employers (25 percent), or a lack of college graduates (10 percent) to explain the skills gap.
“DON’T DIG DITCHES”
Respondents were more or less satisfied with the quality of their own education. Well over half (58 percent) said they regularly use what they learned in school in their work, and 74 percent said that their elementary and high school education adequately prepared them to do college-level work. A sizable minority of respondents (36 percent) seemed to think they were overeducated for their jobs, saying that they could have performed them just as well without their degrees.
If people believe that their education gave them more skills than they can use in their work, that viewpoint likely reflects job dissatisfaction rather than displeasure with their schooling. The prevailing view among respondents without college degrees is that they would be better off economically if they had more education—70 percent with a high school education and 64 percent with some college shared this view. A college degree isn’t the be-all and end-all, either; 44 percent of college graduates also said they would be better off if they had more education.
Older Americans are looking to education to help the next generation rather than their own. Richard Yeckley, a white, 70-year-old retired coal miner in Hastings, Pa., is perfectly happy with the GED that he earned after dropping out of high school and joining the military. He built his own three-bedroom house, which is now paid off, and raised five kids. “The guys in the coal mines, they’re making good money, but not the money you earn as a banker. And it’s dirty work but good enough money,” he said.
Yeckley has high hopes for his grandson, who is enrolled in a community college. “He’s getting good grades. He’ll make something of himself,” he said. The kind of training Yeckley’s grandson receives will give him an easier life. “You don’t dig ditches. Machines do that. But the fellow running that machine, he’s earning a good paycheck,” he said.
This story appeared in the print edition of National Journal under the headline "The Ticket."
Stephanie Czekalinski contributed