Opinion | How Colleges Can Propel More People Into the Middle Class

Lennor Johnson, the college’s president, told EdSource’s Michael Burke that his school is trying to create a “college-going culture” in the community by having a strong relationship with local high schools and getting more high school students to earn community college credits before they even graduate. “Because we know that in an impoverished community, it’s hard,” Johnson said. “So we come out to them and walk them through the process, so by the time they graduate from high school, they already know that this is a potential destination for them.” Johnson said he also wants to make sure families are aware that his college costs only $46 per unit, and that many students can get those low costs waived.

There’s another gap between community college and four-year institutions, and we need to make sure that pipeline is secure. In a piece for The Hechinger Report, Wyner highlights: “a partnership between Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and George Mason University. By enrolling new students at both institutions simultaneously, this large community college and top research university report that they are helping 3,000 students each year get on the path to a low-cost, high-quality bachelor’s degree — the most certain route to a well-paying job in Northern Virginia.”

In 2020, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce published a report called “Buyer Beware: First-Year Earnings and Debt for 37,000 College Majors at 4,400 Institutions.” The first paragraph alone is quite instructive about the many details within:

Surprise! You can make more money with an associate degree in nursing from Santa Rosa Junior College in California than with a graduate degree from some programs at Harvard University. Graduates who earn an associate degree from Pierpont Community and Technical College in West Virginia to become an electrical and power transmission installer can expect to make $6,700 per month ($80,400 per year) in their first year after graduation. That’s a lot of money, especially when you consider that the median first-year earnings for all programs at the bachelor’s degree level is $2,900 per month ($34,800 per year).

The report has a companion online tool that allows you to look up specific majors and schools and see what the earnings-to-debt ratio could be for potential students. There’s another accompanying tool with which you can assess the long-term “net present value” for 4,500 colleges projected over intervals up to 40 years. It defines net present value as “how much a sum of money in the future is valued today. This metric includes costs, future earnings, and the length of time it would take to invest and earn a specific amount of money over a fixed horizon.” In 2021, the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way published a report with a list of majors with the highest and lowest R.O.I.

Clearly, these suggestions won’t help everyone get good jobs, as they define them, or jobs that fulfill them — not everyone wants to be a nurse or a power transmission installer, and there is a lot of work that top-drawer employers need to do to look beyond postsecondary credentials as markers of brilliance, capability and dedication in potential employees. I don’t think people should have to go to college if they don’t want to — as Georgetown’s Good Jobs Project points out, there are 30 million good jobs for workers without bachelor’s degrees.

But a sharper focus on these approaches would help many potential college students believe that higher education is both for them and worth their time, energy and sacrifice. There’s evidence that the United States doesn’t have enough college-educated workers, a situation that seems like a missed opportunity for some of those who could attend but might eschew college, and for the country’s long-term economic health.

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