By Jálynn Larry

Growing up, I always knew that I was expected to graduate from college. Both of my parents were the first in their respective families to earn bachelor’s degrees, and then to earn advanced degrees. Like so many parents, my mother’s definition of success meant job security and economic success; earning a bachelor’s degree seemed to be the key to that success.  

With that in mind, I dutifully enrolled in the best college I was accepted to, and signed on the dotted line of many a Master Promissory Note to finance my dreams of higher learning and future success. Now on the other side of my undergraduate journey with a few years of perspective and a budding career in college access between my past and my present, I wonder what value a bachelor’s degree truly holds in the quest for economic success.

I give this question a lot of thought in my line of work. In my current role, I support high-achieving, low-income high school students in the college application process, with the goal of them enrolling in a top college with a high graduation rate. For so many students and their parents, the goal of education is for students to become productive members of society and to be able to support themselves financially. Is a college degree still the best way to make that happen? Should the primary focus of secondary education remain college preparedness and academic achievement?

In the current climate of education policy, that is where the focus remains. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is staunchly advocating school choice and private school voucher programs at the expense of quality public schools that are working to prepare students for the realities of life after high school graduation. These voucher programs redirect public funds to private and charter schools, reducing the funding available to sustain and improve public schools and the programs they provide for the full range of students in their districts. DeVos’ position on school choice will be a difficult one to sell to parents, who are invested in the opportunities their district schools can provide for their children to succeed, both outside the classroom and after graduation.  

In the 2017 PDK Poll on the public’s attitudes toward public schools, 82% of Americans supported job or career training in high schools alongside academic classes and 86% think the schools in their district should offer licensing and certificate programs, training students for employment after graduation and providing a pathway to job placement and economic stability. Parents and students alike are invested in secondary education as a way for students to prepare for life after graduation. All students should have the opportunity to pursue a post-secondary path that sets them up for economic stability; that opportunity should not be limited to only those students who graduate from college.

In fact, compared to students who do earn bachelor’s degrees, a higher proportion of students with an occupation credential are employed and working in a discipline related to their field of study, according to a recent NCES study. In other words, not only are more high school graduates with vocational training employed than college graduates with bachelor’s degrees, they are more likely to be putting what they studied to good use. Important food for thought, especially when DeVos is gearing up to slash funding for public schools that provide vocational training opportunities and funnel it into private and charter voucher programs.

There has been such a strong cultural shift towards a college-going mentality over the past few decades that the number of tradespeople needed to keep major factions of the U.S. economy afloat is dwindling. American colleges and universities are producing more B.A.s than the country needs, and with 30 million jobs that pay an average of $55,000 a year without a bachelor’s degree, students can achieve a goal of financial stability after graduating from high school without incurring the costs and debt associated with going to college.

The average college graduate in the class of 2016 has incurred $37,172 in student loan debt, contributing to the $1.45 trillion Americans currently owe in student debt overall. While there is certainly still merit to earning a bachelor’s degree, there is a strong argument to be made for secondary education preparing students to enter the job market and putting them on the path to economic stability, rather than saddling them with thousands of dollars in debt before they even see their first paycheck.

Remember, a focus on job creation and security for American workers was one of the cornerstones of the current administration’s bid for office. With that in mind, it should be easy for DeVos to focus her attention on bolstering public secondary school offerings to prepare students for the domestic labor market. If keeping American jobs stateside is really a priority, then current policies should be focused on preparing the next generation of the American labor force to take up these jobs. The best way to do that is to invest in quality, public secondary education options for all students.