Real Numbers: Connecting Jobs to Education

Real Numbers


Connecting Jobs to Education

Contrary to popular opinion, attaining at least a bachelor’s degree is not the only, nor in all cases the best, route to success. Nor is it the norm. Most jobs do not require a bachelor’s degree for entry, and most Americans—including most young adults—do not have a bachelor’s degree.

What makes a bachelor’s (or higher) degree so appealing is not that demand for this level of education is high, but that jobs requiring higher levels of education tend to pay more. In addition, within a job, those with higher education (at any level) tend to earn more; for example, a dental assistant with an associate degree earns about 20% more than a dental assistant who has only a high school education. However, in some jobs, particularly computer-related jobs, other forms of training and experience can substitute for a college degree. For example, although a bachelor’s degree is the entry requirement for computer systems analysts, 35% of younger analysts do not have a bachelor’s degree.

A significant number of sub-baccalaureate jobs offer better than average salary, and many of these are expected to grow. Many of these higher-paying jobs are technical or supervisory, so that although they may not require a bachelor’s degree, they do require job-specific technical training or supervisory skills. How can people get these skills? Numerous education and training opportunities (other than baccalaureate education) exist to help people train for the vast number of jobs that require only moderate amounts of training or higher education. For the sake of students and workers, it is important to acknowledge and encourage these routes to learning and labor market success. They fall into five broad categories:

  • occupational (vocational) education in high school;
  • sub-baccalaureate postsecondary credentials (occupational certificates and associate degrees);
  • post-high-school coursetaking, from a postsecondary institution, employer, professional association, or other organization (sometimes leading to occupational certification or licensure);
  • formal apprenticeship programs (federally sponsored programs that combine on-the-job training with classroom instruction);
  • informal learning activities, such as seminars, web-based tutorials, and mentoring programs.

Obviously, adults can engage in more than one of these learning opportunities over a lifetime, a year, or even during a week or a day; it is not possible to say how many do so. But one hint at the size of this learning enterprise can be gleaned from a national survey of adult education, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education. For 2004-05 this survey found that 31% of all adults age 16 or older had, over 12 months, taken courses for a sub-baccalaureate degree, been in an apprenticeship program, or taken other work-related courses. Most adults also participate in informal learning activities, with estimates ranging from 75% of all employed adults to 96% of workers in establishments with at least 50 employees. Participation trends in these activities are hard to gauge, but participation in the most common of these activities—work-related course-taking—has hovered around 30% (40% for employed adults) since 2001.

Although attaining a bachelor’s degree is often (but not always) a route to higher pay—else why spend the requisite time and money?—other forms of education and training serve a broad swath of the population, including many who go on to earn relatively high salaries. These alternative learning sources should not be overlooked as important contributors to the economic success of individuals and society. Education policymakers, teachers, and guidance counselors should provide due consideration of these options for students. Rather than encouraging all students to pursue one type of education, we should encourage in all students a lifelong interest in multiple routes to learning.

Lisa Hudson () is an education statistician at the National Center for Education Statistics in the Institute for Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education.