Guest Commentary: College more critical than ever
(Online edition headline: College isn't what it used to be, but it's critical)
By Frank Waterous
Recently, the value of a college education has come into question. Robert J. Samuelson of The Washington Post, for one, said the "college-for-all crusade has outlived its usefulness."
In these tough economic times, with unemployment high and college graduates facing a bleak job market, the question might seem worthy of debate. But that's because the question misses the mark on two crucial points:
• The need for an expanded understanding that "college" includes much more than just four-year degrees.
• The ever-increasing importance of some level of post-secondary education for obtaining the kinds of jobs that pay family-sustaining wages in the current and future economy.
The underlying assumption for many Americans is that the words "college" and "four-year bachelor's degree" are synonymous. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As a society, we need to transform the way we think about "college" to recognize that post-secondary educational attainment includes not only the traditional four-year degree, but also two-year associate's degrees, one-year certificates, and a broad range and variety of career and technical credentials that can lead to well-paying jobs and serve as a springboard to further educational attainment.
In this broader definition of what "college" entails, we agree with the Working Poor Families Project that, far from being an idea that has outlived its usefulness, "strengthening the capacities of public post-secondary institutions to help more students earn credentials is a critical state policy goal."
Samuelson's suggestion that "college for all" isn't that important because a sizable percentage of jobs in the current workforce require only a high school diploma overlooks and woefully underplays the growing importance of some level of post-secondary education for success in the 21st century workforce. Highly respected (and often-cited) occupational forecasts from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce suggest that by 2018, 63 percent of job openings in the United States will require workers with at least some college education. In fact, a vital and growing component of our state's own labor market is made up of so-called "middle-skill" jobs – that is, well-paying jobs that require some post-secondary education and training beyond high school but less than a four-year degree. Yet a recent National Skills Coalition report found that "Colorado has been experiencing a structural shortage of middle-skill workers.
Accounting for 47 percent of Colorado's jobs, only 36 percent of Colorado workers are trained to the middle-skill level, a gap that threatens to undermine economic growth and innovation."
Clearly, there is much work to be done in ensuring that even more Coloradans have college opportunities now and in the future. And while increasing college enrollment and completion among traditional-age students remains very important, an often-overlooked fact is that two-thirds of the people who will be in our state's workforce in 2025 are already working adults today. Colorado cannot meet its post-secondary credential completion goals or fill its future workforce needs without helping more adult students succeed in college.
All of this means that we must work to make post-secondary education – "college" in its many forms and outcomes – accessible and affordable for a growing number of Coloradans from all backgrounds and circumstances. "College" isn't what it used to be – and it's more important than ever.
Frank Waterous is a senior policy analyst at the Bell Policy Center in Denver.