Anthony Carnevale and Nicole Smith
December 5, 2022
As the public grows more skeptical of the value of a college degree, career and professional training has become a popular alternative. Indeed, it is long past time for Americans to recognize the value of training programs in the labor market.
But we must not lose sight of the fact that a bachelor’s degree is still the most reliable route to the middle class.
Despite the value of the bachelor’s degree, there is widespread concern about the high cost of college and the growing student debt burden. Only half of all Americans think that the benefits of college outweigh the costs according to a recent survey from Public Agenda. Notably, college undergraduate enrollment dropped 7 percent between 2019 and 2022.
The Biden administration’s student loan debt forgiveness plan is a clear acknowledgment that college costs and the accompanying debt burden have become unsustainable for too many Americans.
Cost concerns make growing interest in job training programs and other pathways to good jobs that don’t require college degrees appear all the more reasonable. Since the 1980s, the U.S. economy has undergone a technologically driven transformation, providing larger monetary advantages to workers who have education or training beyond a high school diploma.
Our projections show that, by 2031, 72 percent of all jobs in the country will go to workers with at least some education beyond high school, as will 85 percent of good jobs, meaning jobs that pay at least $38,000 per year for workers ages 25 to 44, at least $49,000 for workers ages 45 to 64 and $72,000 at the median nationwide, with adjustments for cost-of-living differences by state.
Training programs can be viable pathways to well-paying jobs, particularly in the short term. Nearly one in five good jobs go to workers without a bachelor’s degree but with some education beyond high school, including a training-related certificate or certification, an associate degree or some college education.
And certificates and associate degrees are broadly viewed as more affordable than bachelor’s degrees. In a survey from Morning Consult close to two-thirds of adults said community colleges and professional training programs are affordable, compared to just 35 percent who viewed undergraduate education at an in-state public university as affordable.
But despite these findings, a college degree remains a worthwhile long-term investment. Our research has consistently shown the substantial payoff of a bachelor’s degree in the labor market. Over a lifetime, a worker with a bachelor’s degree typically earns $1.2 million more than a worker with no more than a high school diploma, compared to a lifetime earnings boost of just $300,000 for those with some college education but no degree and $400,000 for those with an associate degree.
Furthermore, median lifetime earnings for master’s degree holders are $1.6 million higher than for those with no more than a high school diploma.
We must not forget that the bachelor’s degree is still the gold standard for workers in today’s economy. By 2031, we estimate that 43 percent of all jobs and 66 percent of good jobs will demand a bachelor’s degree or higher. By contrast, just 13 percent of jobs will demand an associate degree, and 16 percent of jobs will demand some education beyond high school but not a bachelor’s degree.