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A Better Way to Promote Equality of Opportunity Through Education

Now is no time to double down on a crumbling status quo. Instead of universalizing college and directing young people through a single pathway to opportunity, we should be multiplying pathways to opportunity.”

Since the 1960s, college enrollment and degree completion in the United States grew massively, guided by a genuine desire to expand educational opportunity. Over time, this effort produced two related effects on the nation’s education and employment systems. In K-12 and postsecondary education, the mantra “college for all” became the rallying cry of countless policymakers and advocates. In employment circles, the college degree became the default credential for many jobs. Today, this approach has produced calls for free community college, student loan debt forgiveness, and other proposals that continue to expand opportunity by increasing access to higher education, especially for students from under-resourced populations. 

Regrettably, rather than expanding opportunity, these approaches work to lessen it while also heightening inequality. Currently, there are signs of major changes in K-12 and postsecondary education and with employers that point to multiple pathways to opportunity that do not necessarily depend on “college for all” or the college degree as the gateway credential for a job. These changes are welcome because they create a more pluralistic and equitable approach to educational opportunity. 

The Changing Environment

Two trends stand out today when examining postsecondary education and employment. 

First, there is a growing sense that higher education in the United States is a bubble market about to burst. For example, colleges are closing. By one count, since 2016, 72 public and private nonprofit colleges have closed, merged, or announced plans to do so. Moreover, higher education’s business model is “fundamentally broken,” with many institutions not bringing in enough revenue to cover costs, often because they discount their sticker price tuition, which has vastly outpaced inflation. Demographics are also changing, with the pool of 18-year-olds declining and fewer high school graduates going directly to college. And while there are more disadvantaged young people entering college, completion rates show large racial and ethnic disparities that undermine opportunity. Among students who started in four-year public postsecondary institutions, black students had the lowest six-year completion rate (45.9%), followed by Hispanic (55%), whites (67.2%), and Asians (71.7%). 

Public opinion is also critical of higher education. A Populace nationally representative survey of 2,785 Americans illustrates what other polls are finding. A majority (52%) of Americans believe higher education is headed in the “wrong direction,” while only 20% believe it is headed in the “right direction.” Two in three (67%) believe that colleges put their institutional interest first, compared to putting first either students (5%) or the greater good (4%). 

Second, even as college participation declines, employers are moving away from the credentialist hiring model where the college degree is the gateway applicant qualifier for many jobs. Instead, they are gravitating toward a skills-based hiring model that makes practical knowledge and experience a priority. Employers are doing this, in part, because the higher education pipeline is not providing employees with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in their jobs. 

This trend reinforces what people increasingly suspect, which is that many degrees simply are not worth the sticker price. (Nor are they worth the discounted price that includes scholarships and other financial arrangements.)

Two American Compass and YouGov nationally-representative surveys of 1,000 American parents with children ages 12 to 30 and 1,000 young adults ages 18 to 30 show near unanimity on higher education’s major weakness. Over eight in ten parents (83%) and seven in ten young adults (76%) say it is “too expensive,” an opinion held across political affiliations.  

Instead, educational value lies in specific, sequenced credentials that give workers the practical knowledge and skills they need to gain jobs and thrive in their careers. For example, four national surveys of 4,255 Gen Z American high school students by Educational Credit Management Corporation and VICE Media found fewer than half (48%) are considering a four-year college, down 23 percentage points from a high of 71%. Nearly one third prefer one year (or less) education experiences to a four-year experience.   

There is a way to tell this story as capturing a catastrophic decline of higher education. But from the standpoint of equal opportunity, K-12 and postsecondary education and employers should welcome these upheavals. Taken alongside the “great American jobs reshuffle” in the labor market, these shifts offer a much-needed opportunity to rethink how to educate young people for jobs, careers, and adult success. 

In fact, the shift from a degree-based hiring model to a skills-based hiring model should be widely welcomed. For employers, it eliminates hiring inefficiencies and artificially shrunken labor pools. For job seekers, it expands fields of opportunity. For those aiming to create a more equitable society, it breaks down artificial barriers to employment that disproportionately harm minorities and underserved communities. For students and families, it is a faster and less expensive way to prepare young people for their careers.  

This shift has implications not only for postsecondary institutions but also for K-12 education, which must respond nimbly to this changing landscape. The good news is that many K-12 programs are already being created that meet this new challenge. Taken together, they provide a roadmap for a new opportunity framework that should greatly enhance American education and the opportunity to be employed in a job and develop a career that leads to adult success. 

The Credentialist Prejudice

Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel coined the term “credentialist prejudice” to describe the bias that sees the four-year college degree as the key pathway to a flourishing life. It views a degree as “a precondition for dignified work and social esteem…fueling prejudice against less educated members of society.” The negative consequences of this prejudice take multiple forms. Here are three. 

First, the credentialist prejudice creates status inequality via degree inflation, requiring four-year degrees for jobs that once did not demand them. For example, an extensive Harvard Business School study shows that while only 16% of existing production supervisors in 2015 had college degrees, two thirds (67%) of supervisor job postings now require such degrees. This is not because skill requirements have changed; it is because the credential threshold for hiring has simply increased. 

Second, the degree bias shrinks the talent pool, prohibiting many from getting a fair shot at employment. For example, an Opportunity@Work analysis reveals that the degree bias eliminates 79% of Latinos, 68% of African-Americans, 73% of rural residents, and 66% of America’s veterans from employment opportunities they would be qualified to pursue based on the skills they have.  

Third, students are increasingly pessimistic about job prospects and the value of a degree. The idea that a degree offers the best pathway to a good paying job is losing credibility. According to Strada Education Network and Gallup, as of 2017, only about a third of college students strongly agreed that they would graduate with the skills and knowledge needed for jobs (34%) and workplace success (36%). Just half (53%) strongly agreed their major would lead to a good job

In short, the credentialist bias fuels prejudice against those who do not have a degree, produces degree inflation, creates hiring inefficiencies, and works against diversifying the workforce. And people are starting to notice. Now is no time to double down on a crumbling status quo. Instead of universalizing college and directing young people through a single pathway to opportunity, we should be multiplying pathways to opportunity. A single-minded focus on college simply perpetuates the central problem, which is that the college degree should not be the one gateway by which people are evaluated and hired for what are seen as “good jobs.”

 Skills-Based Hiring

A college degree has become a weighty signaling device, a proxy measure to assure employers that the degree holder has acquired baseline content knowledge and essential work-related traits like self-discipline. Burning Glass Technologies CEO Matt Sigelman describes it as “a major exercise in deferred gratification.” But today that signal is weakening, and its negative consequences are growing clearer.

Employers are turning instead to skills-based hiring, an approach that evaluates a person’s capabilities and competencies and matches them to those needed for a job. Skills-based hiring opens new and different pathways for workers to find jobs and lifelong opportunity, leveling the playing field and making talent pools more diverse and inclusive. It includes technical and digital skills as well as more general skills like communications, collaboration, and problem solving. 

Skills-based hiring deals pragmatically with two stubborn labor market facts that will not disappear any time soon. First, nearly two thirds (65%) of the American labor force do not have a college degree. Second, there are many good middle skills jobs for those with a high school education but not a college degree. Many employers, some from pre-pandemic times, are embracing this approach, including the likes of Google, Ernst & Young, Penguin Random House, Apple, IBM, and Bank of America. 

Since 2019, LinkedIn has witnessed a 21% increase in American job postings that list skills and responsibilities rather than qualifications and degree requirements. It has also seen a nearly 40% increase in the number of positions that do not require a degree. In response to these trends, LinkedIn has developed a product called Skills Path that allows companies to define the skills they need for a job and match them to potential employees. Employees then have free access to curated LinkedIn Learning courses allowing them to complete assessments, gain additional skills, and earn a telephone screen call with the company, often leading to a job. This tool is now being used by more than a dozen employers, including Gap, Microsoft, Citrix, and Wayfair. 

Another broader industrywide example companies use to foster skills-based hiring (and employee development) is found in the “skills hub.” This company unit tracks and manages the firm’s skills needs, considering supply and demand, including creating general learning programs for all employees or focused ones for particular roles. Their four tasks include assessing job applicants, forecasting future skill needs, managing training, and tracking the successes or setbacks of its work.

K-12 Pathways Partnership Models 

In order to realize the potential of this sea change, the move from credentialist hiring to skills-based hiring must involve education as well as employment. The good news is that K-12 education is creating new pathways programs to jobs, careers, and opportunity that complement the skills-based hiring approach. These include apprenticeships, internships, and career and technical education; dual enrollment in high school and postsecondary institutions; career academies; boot camps for acquiring specific knowledge or skills; staffing, placement, and other support services; and income-share agreements so students repay tuition after acquiring a good-paying job. 

Promisingly, these approaches appear to have a broad bipartisan appeal. Governors from both political parties have spearheaded these programs. 

  • Delaware Pathways began in 2014 under Democratic Governor Jack Markell and includes a paid 240-hour senior employer internship, while allowing students to take postsecondary career courses with credit applied to associate degrees or certificates. 
  • Tennessee’s Drive to 55 Alliance began in 2015 under Republican Governor Bill Haslam and created a private sector and nonprofit partnership with five new state-funded programs, three on K–12 pathways. 

New pathways programs are also being produced through collaborations between K-12 educators and local business and civic partners. Examples include 3-D Education in Atlanta, YouthForce NOLA in New Orleans, and Cristo Rey, a network of 38 Catholic high schools in 23 states. While the specifics of these programs vary, all combine schools, employers, and civic organizations that offer young people practical workforce experience via work-study, internships, and entry-level jobs. 

Other and diverse examples can be found. Some are local efforts, such as a partnership in Los Angeles County between the Wiseburn School District and Da Vinci Charter School that offer students internships, mentorships, workshops, and boot camps while they pursue associate or bachelor’s degree through University of California, Los Angeles Extension and El Camino College or College for America

Others are organized by discipline, such as CodePath, a national nonprofit that provides training and mentorship to students from underserved populations pursuing technical careers or educational pathway. And others are reinventing current institutions, such as the Come to Believe Network, a two-year commuter community college for K-12 graduates, that furnishes students with academic support, meals, laptops, tutoring, and work experience to gain associate degrees and employment with little or no financial debt. 

These programs have five common features that offer a guide to creating more pathways programs in other communities. 

  1. Learning and Credentials: Programs teach academic and technical skills linked with local labor employer needs and receive a credential when completing a program. As a result, they have a leg up on getting a good job. 
  2. Work and Careers: Students explore work and careers beginning early in school, with guest speakers and field trips, and later in high school they participate in work placement and mentorships that are integrated into classroom instruction and connect them with adults.
  3. Adult advisors: Advisors help students overcome barriers they encounter and make informed choices, preventing job placement based on race, ethnicity, or other demographic considerations while also helping them develop confidence and knowledge so they can make their own choices about their pathway.
  4. Partnerships: Employers, industry groups, and other institutions collaborate for programs to succeed, creating written agreements clarifying who is responsible for what, including a governance structure, a civic partnership, between all the organizations. 
  5. Supportive Laws and Policies: Local, state, and federal laws, policies, and programs create a framework for program development, so knowing these is central to program success.  

These pathways programs help young people develop an occupational identity and vocational self, including a broader sense of who they are as adults. They also foster local civic engagement from employers and other community partners. Moreover, they are both faster and cheaper pathways  to jobs and careers than traditional postsecondary education. Finally, they place individuals on a path toward economic and social well-being, informed citizenship, and civic responsibility, providing a foundation for adult success and a lifetime of opportunity.

Opportunity Pluralism

Skills-based hiring and pathways programs do not preclude the college degree option. What they do is replace the narrow credentialist prejudice with a broader understanding of opportunity. They foster opportunity pluralism, offering individuals multiple pathways to work and career that link education, training, and credential-earning to the labor market. 

Instead of trying to force everyone through the college pipeline, a pluralistic approach to opportunity pays attention to the full range of education and training sectors involved in learning and working, including K–12, postsecondary, workforce training, and employers. Opportunity pluralism is the best way to ensure people from all backgrounds and classes have multiple pathways to acquiring the knowledge and networks needed for jobs and careers so they can access opportunity to lead a flourishing life. 

The American public in general (and parents and young people, in particular) are ready for alternatives to the heavily-trodden path that links K-12 to college degrees and pursuing a career. Seven in ten Americans believe employers should hire job candidates with the required skills and experience, even without a college degree. But less than half say employers in their field do so. Another nationally representative survey of nearly 3,000 parents of 11- to 24-year-olds found almost half (46%) want post-high school pathways programs beyond the college degree pathway. 

Those focusing exclusively on advocating a “college for all” approach operate on an outmoded and flawed model. A new opportunity framework creates skills-based pathways and credentials more closely linked with employers and labor market demand. The good news is that the future is already underway in states and local communities. It is time that we embraced this new opportunity framework, for the good of students who benefit from these programs and for the good of society, which can make better use of talents that might otherwise be overlooked.

Bruno V. Manno is Senior Advisor for the Walton Family Foundation’s education program. He’s a former Assistant Secretary of Education for Policy in the U.S Department of Education. Some of the organizations mentioned in this piece receive financial support from the Walton Family Foundation. 

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