The increasingly divergent experience of those with and without college degrees has lent a new urgency to long-standing efforts to grow the number of Americans with bachelor’s degrees. But despite rising enrollments in higher education over the last three decades, and enormous investments in improving college access and completion, our bachelor degree attainment rate has only increased by a few percentage points. In 2013, just over 33 percent of all Americans had a bachelor’s degree, compared to 29 percent in 2000. While the reasons are complex, one of them is that a bachelor’s degree takes a long time to earn and is expensive. Many students cannot afford to spend four years (or more) in school and need postsecondary credentials that can help them transition quickly into the labor market to support themselves and their families. Those students will have a particularly hard time completing a bachelor’s degree.
Today, I released a paper titled Flipping the Paradigm: Why We Need Training-based Pathways to the Bachelor’s Degree and How to Build Them that explains how our education policies have created a “Catch-22” for students who need to start their careers before they complete a four-year degree. These students can find higher education programs that will train them for specific occupations but they will have a hard time getting that learning to count toward a bachelor’s degree. And without a bachelor’s degree, they will struggle to advance in their careers and will be more vulnerable during economic downturns. It is one of the many ironies of our higher education system that career training is considered deeply problematic when it takes place below the bachelor’s degree level, but completely appropriate at the postgraduate level – in master or doctoral degree programs or in the professional schools. In fact, in the United States high quality training is increasingly an activity reserved for those who have the time and resources to complete a four-year degree first.
This two-tier system, in which career training is widely available but disarticulated and of dubious quality at the lower end of our education spectrum, but highly organized and articulated at the higher end, is not an accident. It stems from outdated conceptions of what a four-year degree must include, the manner (and sequence) in which students must learn those things, and a host of unintended consequences from policy changes made to the Higher Education Act almost forty years ago. But none of these barriers are inevitable or irreversible. In Flipping the Paradigm, I explain how a number of states and institutions are leading the way in building pathways to four-year degrees that start with a career-training program. Some are creating “upside-down degrees” that put two years of general education on top of two years of technical training. Others are developing new “applied” bachelor’s degrees that enable students to build on, and broaden, their technical expertise. I also include a set of concrete reforms to federal and state education policies that would make it easier for institutions to meet the needs of students seeking career education opportunities and four-year degrees.
A higher education system in which students can start their journey to a four-year degree and beyond with high quality training in a specific occupation would be a great help to many people. As the data continues to mount on the difficulties non-college graduates face navigating today’s tough economy, we need to rethink and reengineer how students can advance toward a bachelor’s degree and beyond. That will mean challenging some traditional notions about the difference between “education” and “training” – an artificial distinction that has hampered efforts to meet the needs of diverse learners. Students are already figuring out that they need a combination of practical skills and general knowledge, and that one does not come at the expense of the other. Now we just need our higher education policies to catch up."