A new poll shows that more than half of Americans think a four-year university degree is “not worth the cost.” But as so often happens in public debates around higher education, we’re missing the real question.
The poll by the Wall Street Journal and the research group NORC at the University of Chicago found that only 42 percent agreed with this statement: “A four-year college education is worth the cost because people have a better chance to get a good job and earn more income over their lifetime.”
Inside Higher Ed’s coverage notes that this is a reversal from 10 years ago, when a majority said the degree was worth it.
There are many issues to think about here, including affordability and the job readiness of graduates. But as we assess education’s value, we should avoid an all-too-common fallacy.
See if this sounds familiar: “Not everybody needs to go to college.”
That is correct—of course they don’t. But that is an example of what is called the “excluded middle” in logic—the fallacy of assuming there are only two possible solutions to a problem.
To be sure, a bachelor’s degree on average results in a substantial payoff in the United States—$2.8 million over one’s working life, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. The return on investment can vary substantially, depending on the major.
But fewer than half of Americans 25 and older, 48.4 percent, have a college degree, the Census Bureau reported last year. So, 48 states have set attainment goals for diplomas or high-quality workforce credentials in recent years. And no wonder: By far, most of today’s “good” jobs, the ones with benefits and living wages, require something beyond a high school diploma.
Notice we are not saying that everybody needs a college degree as opposed to just a high school education. That is a false choice—and it’s not the only one being promoted today. Aside from the all-or-nothing myth about college, another false choice often offered is between a bachelor’s degree and shorter-term credentials such as certificates and industry certifications.
The reality is that for many people, short-term credentials are a first step on a longer journey. Many need to go on to other credentials, including the bachelor’s, to achieve long-term success in a rapidly changing world. That is why we need to promote short-term credentials and apprenticeships as paths to opportunity—as near-term gains but also as the foundation for further learning and long-term success.
Call this a “both/and” argument. With demand continuing to rise for skills developed in BA programs, more resources are required—and not just to meet the rising need for bachelor’s-level talent. They must also help more people obtain those short-term credentials—learning that allows them to get family-sustaining jobs and build pathways toward stable, middle-class careers.
I am reminded of a time when the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told graduates that their education should not end when they accept their diplomas. The most important things college can teach a person, he said, is how to acquire knowledge and how to instill a lifelong habit of learning.
The president’s name was Karl Compton. He said that in 1938.
Eighty-five years later, we are still talking about the importance of continued education. But instead of the phrase “lifelong learning” and its suggestion of endless school and tuition bills, think of it this way: Companies and countries investing in the future of their people. Our vision should include a ladder of success in every good job, where people are empowered to grow their skills, their earnings, and their life satisfaction.
That just makes sense: In the fast-moving world of growing technology and opportunity, we see new tools, techniques, machines—new ways of doing things introduced all the time. Instead of viewing life as separate phases of learning and work, we must view those activities as intertwined: internships and other work opportunities while in school, and routine learning of new skills at work. We expect our doctors to know the latest procedures. We want auto technicians to know how to fix our cars, no matter how old or new. And that is true across the workforce.
Short-term credentials and apprenticeship programs are the starting point for many good careers, but the opportunity need not end there. There are many good choices to make when it comes to learning and success, including to keep growing our skills—and the good choices our nation should make in continuing to invest in its people.
This article was originally published in Forbes.