Degree Not Required? Students Stare Down the Ever-Increasing Cost of Higher Education

May 24, 2023


I dodged another conversation this week about what college I’m going to attend. ASB social media managers across Marin are hunting down seniors to document their future plans on Instagram. Congrats! You graduated! Good luck figuring out the rest of your life, baby birds. The only types of posts I’ve seen on these accounts are announcements about college commitments, and I wonder how representative of “our” futures that really is. Is college the be-all and end-all that decades of intense marketing have made it out to be? 

America has reached a crossroads regarding higher education, and a unique convergence of conditions has set us up for systemic change. Teens are staring down the ever-increasing cost of higher education, companies are facing a sharp labor shortage, and communities are adjusting their education perceptions in the wake of the pandemic. More than perhaps ever before, students are experimenting with the idea that the traditional route–from high school, straight to a four-year university–isn’t the only path to career opportunity and financial stability. New, concrete paths are being paved with guidance at the local, state, and national level. San Rafael City Schools is taking students’ lead and making thoughtful additions to programs that haven’t been developed since before World War II, revamping skills-based learning through a 21st-century, post-pandemic lens. 

Conversations with SR students reveal a broad restlessness for more accessible and diverse opportunities. Sarah Casper, a senior and soon-to-be college student, feels “more options should be encouraged.” Casper, whose father has been a construction manager for over 25 years, adds, “I wish they had more trades like construction or welding classes.” 

SR senior Hayden Owen shares Casper’s sentiment. During the summers, he works with his dad, who has been a metal fabricator for over 30 years. Getting his hands dirty has deepened Owen’s appreciation for this in-demand, highly skilled job. He doesn’t understand why schools won’t get “rid of the idea that college is the only way to be successful.”

Another senior, Shaylee McCulley, is opting for a path that doesn’t mean jumping right into a four-year university. Citing both uncertainty and cost as factors in her decision, McCulley will attend College of Marin, a two-year community college, in the fall. “I feel like this will help me figure out what I want to do,” she says, “and I can save money in the process.”

Glenn Dennis sees these students’ vision. As the Director of Secondary Education at the San Rafael District Office, he’s witnessing the change happen firsthand. Several new career pathways are opening up next year at San Rafael and Terra Linda high schools. These pathways can teach students skills they can utilize in well-paying jobs right out of high school. Dennis believes the new Construction Academy, which he’s creating alongside educators Bob Holt and Steve Temple, is a program that “offers a great opportunity in a field that is in high demand and has many career options within it.”

SR’s Temple is looking forward to teaching the course. While walking me through his hopes for the program next year, he pointed out where the homes would be constructed behind the STEAM building.

The Associated Builders and Contractors surmise that nationally more than half a million laborers above the normal rate will need to be hired to meet demands in 2023. In California, the Associated General Contractors of America found that 78% of construction companies are having a difficult time filling positions, and 76% expect this trend to continue or worsen. In conjunction with this decline in available workers, there is a resulting upward trajectory in wages. A headline on the home-improvement magazine Family Handyman blares, “Wages Skyrocket for US Construction Workers,” in a reflection of this positive trend. Connecting high school students to programs like the Construction Pathway appears more important than ever.

“From my perspective, wages as well as the opportunity for career development are growing in the skilled trades,” says George Morf, a Marin County native and a developer for more than 20 years. He adds that he would welcome the idea of connecting schools with local businesses or nonprofits if it meant more young people who are interested in becoming carpenters, plumbers, or electricians could get a jumpstart on their careers.


Signs of Progress

Solid efforts are being made at the state, community, and school campus levels to provide alternatives to the traditional college track. The state is providing funding for vocational education programs through several routes, including: the aptly named California Technical Education Incentive Grant (CTEIG), the Strong Workforce Program (CA), and the Perkins Grant. Each comes with its own criteria for who can receive the grants; San Rafael’s district has qualified and is in its sixth round of funding. The CTEIG will provide tools and teacher salaries to the Construction Academy.

Getting funding is foundational, but any significant change really does take a village. SR history teacher Matthew Winton was able to connect Big Skills Tiny Homes (BSTH), a Marin County nonprofit, to the growing movement at San Rafael. BSTH donates homes for those in need and even runs its own program to introduce teens to the construction trade. It will supply materials to the Construction Academy, along with the expertise and advice of its engineers, designers, skilled craftsmen, and teachers.

A key part of any Career Technical Education (CTE) program is advisory boards, made up of industry professionals, school staff, a representative from the Marin County Office of Education, local higher education staff, counselors, and administrators. In addition to the materials they’ll supply, Big Skills Tiny Homes will be contributing their expertise through participation on the Construction Academy’s advisory board. 

“The purpose of the counsel is to make sure that what we’re teaching is actually what the industry is looking for in terms of skills, certifications,” Dennis says. “The industry professionals can also sometimes provide career exploration opportunities for things like job shadows and internships.”

San Rafael High parent and construction industry professional Theo Garcia attended one of the pathway advisory committee meetings recently and offered to connect the school to his corporation’s purchasing arm to get wholesale prices for materials.

Big Skills Tiny Homes has a warning on its website: “Shop class is almost history.” It seems that many are committed to eliminating this fear and understand that the endangered class won’t be repopulated without some significant changes. These new programs at SR are called “pathways” for a reason. In a post announcing the academy, Temple explains that the intention is to guide students in gaining “skills applicable to careers that do not require college degrees and allow them to discover alternative professional pathways outside of the four-year college track.”

Ethan Burnham, a recent SR alum, didn’t go to college after high school. He’s currently camping in Canada and planting trees, following a plethora of other endeavors since his graduation, including a trip to explore Alaska. He’s doing his own hands-on learning, in the hopes of becoming an adventure guide. He’s “very happy to hear” this change is coming into conversations at SR. He understands the value in even just knowing about the breadth of options beyond the traditional paths.

Alyssa Federighi transferred to SR in her junior year. Now a senior, she says she feels pathways are “essential” and “wish[es] we had a lot more.” At her previous school, they had more, and she found they gave students an “accurate lens of what the job would be like–so two years in[to a specific career path], students don’t realize this is not what they want to do. It’s setting kids up for success.”

The Media and Engineering academies, which have been around for nearly two decades and which Temple has had a hand in teaching, might not be recognizable to students as CTE programs. Dennis points out that they haven’t commonly been referred to in those terms and that three years ago a teacher might have even claimed SRHS didn’t have one of these programs. Though they do “teach job skills,” Dennis admits, “they’re very academic in nature.” Even though there are already very robust CTE programs running at SR, new programs will take a different approach with the help of these advisory boards. In addition to the Construction Academy, academies for Education and Digital Music are also on the way, and each is set to have its own professionals to advise the programs.


Upskilling and Upward Mobility

This movement isn’t anti-college. In fact, advocates for change in the American education system, like journalist and author Rajiv Chandrasekaran, actually encourage students to do more schooling–just not necessarily the style of education that traditional colleges offer.

“In saying that college isn’t for everybody, this isn’t an argument that a high school education is enough,” Chandrasekaran says. “If college isn’t the right path, if you want a stable career and a better shot at upward mobility, you’re gonna need something beyond high school.”

The numbers bear out that having some schooling, if not a full degree, is better in terms of pay and job security over the long term. Still, as Chandrasekaran learned while reporting on a five-year study called The American Opportunity Index, many companies are realizing that a degree doesn’t make or break a successful employee. As the Index reports, Costco and AT&T are part of a trend among companies to invest in the growth of their employees by offering more upskilling programs and applicable certifications, and clear pathways for promotion regardless of degree status. The Index, a collaboration among the Harvard Business School, the Burning Glass Institute, and the Schultz Family Foundation, highlights the changes emerging in the workforce environment and shows signs that motivated students can find economic stability and job satisfaction without a four-year degree.

There are currently more than 70 million workers in the US who have been trained in skills outside of college that can help them attain productive roles. These individuals are referred to as STARs (Skilled Through Alternative Routes) by Opportunity@Work, a nonprofit founded to support the White House initiative TechHire, both of which aim to shrink the opportunity gap that’s preventing skilled workers from reaching high-paying, skilled jobs. 

In 2022, Opportunity@Work launched the nationwide Tear the Paper Ceiling campaign to call on businesses to break through the blockades preventing 50% of the workforce from advancing to higher wage work.

STARs are people who have developed skills through on-the-job experience, training programs, military service, community college, or partial college completion. The common belief that a bachelor’s degree is necessary for most high-paying jobs and acquiring the skills to succeed at them is preventing millions of workers from achieving what they could, and millions more from pursuing their interests instead of trudging through college or going straight to a low-skills job.

McCulley hears other students belittling the decision to not go to a four-year university, and it bugs her. She finds, “There’s always those people that are like ‘At least you’re not going to COM!’” She doesn’t understand why the experience is seen as any less valuable.

“College is a wonderful bridge to opportunity for millions, but it should never be a drawbridge excluding anyone who doesn’t cross it from thriving careers…Tearing the paper ceiling is about bringing in talent based on skills, not degrees; performance, not pedigree; and inclusion, not exclusion,” says Opportunity@Work CEO Byron Auguste.

Up until recently, though, college has acted as a drawbridge, greatly limiting STAR potential. Only in the past few years, post-pandemic, have companies reevaluated their hiring processes. The labor shortage is forcing their hand; leading companies like Google, Apple, and IBM have begun dropping college degree requirements for hiring. In addition, states such as Alaska, Colorado, Maryland–which made the change alongside Opportunity@Work–New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Utah are dropping degree requirements for a variety of state jobs. More are in the process of changing their legislation.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox says a main concern is that “degrees have become a blanketed barrier-to-entry in too many jobs. Instead of focusing on demonstrated competence, the focus too often has been on a piece of paper. We are changing that.”

The Biden administration is reshaping the system from the top. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh are heading the effort, known as “Raise the Bar: Unlocking Career Success.” The goal is to expand high school through programs meant to arm students with the skills to take on jobs without college degrees. “We must challenge our myopic view … that it’s four-year college or bust,” Cardona set forth in a major policy speech in Washington, D.C., in January of this year. “It’s my intention to raise the bar so that we can lead the world in advanced career and technical education.”


Just Too Expensive

A huge cloud looming over college is cost. It has always been a hindrance for many pursuing higher education, and it’s only gotten worse over the years. No matter if private schools like Boston University label their tuition as “probably less than you think” on their website, that $83,278 under “total estimated billed expenses” seems to weigh on the majority of potential students regardless. Even helpful calculators like the one on UC Santa Barbara’s website don’t change the fact that a California resident would likely pay nearly $40,000 in their first year. 

These fears aren’t irrational either. In 1960, when California lawmakers created a “master plan” for the UC system, residents paid $60 per semester in “incidental fees.” But following administration agendas and economic shifts, the cost has skyrocketed. Between 1977 and 2018, undergraduate fees at UCs grew at nearly five times the rate of inflation during the same period. The California State University system tuition has grown 900% in the past 40 years, adjusted for inflation. On top of this, outstanding student debt in California has climbed to $141.9 billion and increased $7.6 billion in just 12 months.

According to a study by the Gates Foundation, 38% of young people who didn’t ship off to college in 2022 said it was just too expensive, and 26% said it was more important to get a job and start making money right out of high school. Over 70% said it would be very or extremely helpful for completing a degree to get any of a wide range of financial literacy and support services.

SR senior Amelie Madding is easing college costs with a scholarship she received from Trader Joe’s, a fixture of the local community, where she’s worked for almost the entirety of high school. She’s clocked in enough hours to receive the support, and she says it’s taught her to “understand the value of hard work.”

Madding is firm in her belief that what you put in, you should get out. She put in the work at her job and received a scholarship; she does well in school, and she goes to college. But she believes that focusing on grades simply for college acceptance isn’t necessarily the right incentive for everyone, especially if the cost is just too high. CTE programs offer that alternative motivation; you put in the work, you earn skills and trades that can get you a job and advance your career. It’s a more direct, practical route, and for some, far more appealing or accessible.


A Shock To Our System

Big shock: The pandemic has had a major impact on all aspects of life, particularly education. Schools and their students suffered financially, academically, and emotionally during quarantine and while learning online.

The fact that our education system has changed so little in the past several decades has made the adjustment that much more shocking.

“Until March 2020, American schooling looked much like it had in 1920,” remarks Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. The message that college is the only viable route to a happy and successful life has been hammered into generations of students in the US. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, higher education enrollment was stagnant, and a senior media administrator for Cornell University took charge to increase enrollment. In 1983, Robert Topor published Marketing Higher Education: A Practical Guide to assist a relatively undeveloped field in how to attract students. 

Previously, college had served individuals curious about the humanities, but by the ’80s, it became a tool for increasing earnings power. Finance bros flooded the gates of four-year universities, and college administrators, armed with Topor’s guide and new slogans, took this opportunity to expand their reach. Representatives lined up to present students with a Shark Tank-style pitch, including “resorting to hard-sell strategies which in some cases impinge[d] upon the traditional standards and canons of higher education,” said writer Edward Fiske in a 1979 article in The Atlantic.

A silver lining of the pandemic is that it has elevated the importance of addressing mental health and the need for students to take better care of themselves in that sense. Responsibilities and unexpected life events outside of school can tank mental health and make it that much more difficult to learn. Caleigh Urban, a senior at SR, has encountered difficulties learning in a typical classroom due to the mounting pressure many seniors feel to make it into college after high school. Urban, who is going to College of Marin next year, says this is a detour in her plan to ultimately go to a four-year university. “School was always something I was good at,” Urban says. But after two concussions in her junior year and the stress of college gnawing at her, she “developed a lack of motivation in most areas of [her] life.” Her academic success suffered, and she laments, “It was a hard choice–to choose between prioritizing my mental health or my grades–but the depression and anxiety became unbearable, and I hit a breaking point.” Often, pressure builds to follow a strict structure and expect it to go well for everyone. CTE programs, like the evolving ones at SR, can take some of the pressure off by offering more types of learning and accommodating for ups and downs of life.

A second silver lining is that we now know there will be ground below us when we take the leap. There is no one method for learning, and we were forced to make that discovery and could be better for it. Making changes to our education system to include more vocational opportunities can benefit vocational and non-vocational students alike. According to the data analysis group Public School Reviews, skills-based learning puts a focus on hands-on activities and specialized processes, catering more to the needs of active and kinesthetic learners. This opens doors for so many more students and provides a chance to improve education overall.

Forced into online learning and virtual work during the pandemic, many believe that it has changed them in some way. It made McCulley want to travel more. Casper made more friends. Though the experience was not all cupcakes and rainbows, the impact might’ve taught us something valuable about our performance in different environments.

As McCulley points out, “For some people, spending a ton of time at home makes them want to leave, but others might realize they like staying at home and doing work.” The sort of blank slate experience of quarantine offered people the chance to “figure out what [they] liked without outside influence,” as Casper puts it. 

Teenagers are arguably at an incredibly formative point in their lives when it comes to coping mechanisms and learning habits. In quarantine, without the molds of a traditional school setting, students realized there are countless paths to take. CTE programs can represent a more balanced version of what we experienced during the pandemic, bringing in both stability and personal growth.

 McCulley and Urban didn’t know about the new CTE pathways and say they would’ve been interested in at least one if they were coming back to SR next year. No matter your future plans, McCulley views high school as “a good time to test things out.”

As the opportunity gap widens between those with and without a degree, it’s more important than ever to provide those testing grounds and remove traditional barriers to fulfilling careers. We’re at an inflection point with both the will and a host of ways to make this happen.


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