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Is a College Degree Worth the Investment?

June 01, 2017

College Degree

By Peter J. Taylor, ECMC Foundation

With tuition soaring across public and private colleges, universities, and postsecondary institutions, many are pondering the question: Is going to college worth it?

While the price of college is undeniably more expensive than ever, the benefits of continuing education beyond high school far outweigh the costs.

For an explanation, we first look to the evolution of the U.S. economy and its current state. In today's post-industrial economy, a college degree is increasingly valuable. As our economy continues to shift away from manufacturing and production, job growth centers around industries that require at least some postsecondary education. In fact, since 1973, the share of jobs in the U.S. requiring a degree, some level of college or a credential rose from 28 to 63 percent.

Having at least some form of education beyond high school can be a gateway into the middle class and a driver for social and economic mobility. It also holds the key to a wide range of opportunities. A study conducted by the Georgetown University Center on Education and Workforce found that postsecondary education provides access to all industries across the economy, including STEM, education, healthcare, the arts, and many others. In contrast, having only a high school degree often limits individuals to declining and/or low wage jobs.

Moreover, jobs that require postsecondary education are more stable: 97 percent of jobs created since the end of the Great Recession have required a bachelor's degree, associate's degree or some education beyond high school. On the other hand, industries whose occupations are held by individuals with only a high school degree or less, such as manufacturing and construction, have not recovered as quickly.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 5.7 million job openings today—a record high. This statistic, however, should be viewed with caution. Many employers find it difficult to fill these vacant positions. In fact, two-thirds of employers in the first quarter of 2017 reported that they have job openings but are struggling to find qualified candidates.

Surprisingly, these employers don't cite the lack of technical skills as the problem, but rather point to the lack of soft skills among candidates, such as communication, critical thinking, and collaboration. In one survey, 44 percent of employers cited the lack of soft skills as their biggest hiring challenge, while only half as many cited a deficit of the right technical skills.

At ECMC Foundation, we recognize that attaining education beyond high school is critical, yet a lack of soft skills can limit students' ability to enter into and succeed in the workforce. To address this complex problem, the Foundation makes investments to support students in accessing opportunities for robust educational experiences that meet all of their needs and prepare them for college and their careers.

We believe that it begins with how we teach students in the classroom. Our Teacher and Leader Development team's funding decisions reflect this belief. The focus area invests in programs that support and spread deeper learning practices, which prepare students for college and career by integrating mastery of content with critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration and effective communication skills in real world contexts.

One such example is our recently formed partnership with New Tech Network, which emphasizes deeper learning practices. This past April, the Foundation awarded $2.5M to support the training and coaching of teachers and district staff across three South Carolina school districts, where the majority of students are from low-income backgrounds. Over the next three years, the New Tech Network school model will be implemented at elementary, middle and high schools within these three districts.

In addition to partnerships with organizations similar to New Tech Network, the Foundation aims to provide valuable resources on soft skills. With the goal of supporting the education community's incorporation of soft skills into their curriculum and instruction, we launched the Soft Skills Library last year. The digital library is home to hundreds of soft skills resources and is regularly updated.

At ECMC Foundation, we make investments to help students gain access to postsecondary education, persist and graduate, while also investing in approaches that ensure they graduate with all of the skills that are important for succeeding in today's workforce.

Returning to our original question: is going to college worth it?

Yes, postsecondary education is valuable, but to prepare the 21st century graduate for success in the workforce, integrating soft skills development into academic curriculum is a must.

Happy National Higher Education Day.

Peter J. Taylor

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