College & Workforce Readiness

Many Young People Think a High School Diploma Is Enough, Poll Finds

By Catherine Gewertz — November 14, 2019 7 min read
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Two new polls show that Americans—particularly young Americans—don’t see a college degree as crucial to their career success, yet one more sign that people are questioning whether higher education is worth the debt that typically comes with it.

One poll found that nearly half of young people ages 13 to 29 think a high school diploma alone is sufficient to thrive in the workplace.

“That’s a striking number of young people who think a high school diploma is enough. [That belief] is just incorrect, and it really worries me,” said Harry J. Holzer, a Georgetown University economist and public policy professor who studies the kinds of education various jobs require.

Believing a high school diploma alone leads to good jobs flies in the face of research showing that increasingly, jobs in the modern economy demand some kind of training or education after high school. Young people can aspire to a vast sector of “middle skill” jobs that pay well and don’t require four-year degrees, but in general, bachelor’s degrees still produce much higher lifetime earnings.

Soul searching about higher education is widespread, though, fueled by concern about its price tag and questions about its necessity in a rapidly evolving job market that is challenging the relevance of a traditional college education. Those doubts came through clearly in the two sets of poll results.

A Harris poll released Thursday asked 2,015 adults what kinds of training or education they consider “absolutely essential,” and of five options, a college degree came in third. “Soft skills” topped the list, with 37 percent, followed by job preparation, with 36 percent.

Only 23 percent said a college degree is “absolutely essential.” Adding the responses of those who think college degrees are “very important” brought the total to 54 percent.

Having earned a degree didn’t change people’s views. Only 28 percent of the respondents who were college graduates said they consider a college degree “absolutely essential.” The poll didn’t make a distinction between two- and four-year degrees.

Attitudes toward a college degree varied by age group. Sixty percent of respondents 65 or older said a bachelor’s degree was essential or very important, compared with 52 percent of those 18 to 34.

Adrienne Diercks, the founder of Project Success, a group that works with Minneapolis schools to help students “connect to their purpose” through enrichment activities and goal-setting, and that commissioned the Harris poll, said the results argue for carefully tailoring post-high school planning to each student’s aspirations instead of urging them all to attend four-year colleges.

Is High School Enough?

A poll released earlier this week by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago found mixed views among nearly 2,600 young people about the value of higher education.

Pollsters asked 13- to 29-year-olds how well various types of education “prepare someone for success in today’s economy.” Sixty percent said a bachelor’s degree or vocational school were good forms of preparation, and 73 percent gave the nod to on-the-job experience. And 45 percent said that a high school diploma is a solid road to success.

Stephanie Brazinsky, a counselor at South High School in Denver, said the results surprised her.

“I don’t get the sense from my students that [they think] high school is enough,” she said. “Almost all of them believe some type of postsecondary is necessary.”

The youngest respondents in the AP-NORC poll, 13 to 17 years old, were more likely than those 18 to 29 to say high school was sufficient preparation for success. Responses varied by race, too. More than half of African-American and Hispanic respondents said a high school diploma is good preparation for success, compared with 4 in 10 white respondents.

Research shows that there are many good-paying jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree. Holzer’s work tracks the expansion of “middle-skill” jobs, and many pay well, but they generally require more than a high school diploma. Most require training or certification, or an associate degree.

Careful Counseling Needed

Holzer said he worries that young people might hear about jobs that don’t require four-year degrees and think they can start careers right after high school.

“Young people are notoriously under-counseled” in high school and community college, he said. They need adults who are knowledgeable about which jobs are in demand, what they pay, and what kinds of education or training they require, he said.

Students need wise counseling on their choice of college major, too, since that choice can have a huge impact on their earnings. The difference between the lowest-paying majors, like social work or early childhood education, and the highest-paying, petroleum engineering, can total $3.4 million over a lifetime, one study found.

Brazinsky, whose school serves a wide variety of affluent and working-class, American-born, and immigrant students, said she notices that students—and their counselors—are discussing educational options that stop short of a bachelor’s degree more now than they did five or 10 years ago.

“It definitely feels like there is a trend that we don’t necessarily push all our kids toward four-year college, that it isn’t the answer for everyone, because of the expense, and because not everyone’s career goals necessarily require it,” she said. “A lot of students might want to get a technical degree or certificate.”

It’s impossible for a counselor to stay abreast of the complexity of the changing labor market in order to advise students in detail on which jobs are in demand, and what their salaries and educational requirements are, Brazinsky said. The trick, she said, is to be skilled in knowing where to find the information students ask for.

The Colorado Department of Education has begun posting labor-market information that can help counselors advise students, she said.

How Will I Afford College?

The AP-NORC poll showed that young people are deeply worried about the cost of higher education, a factor that could be influencing their thinking on college degrees. More than three-quarters said college affordability is a “very serious or extremely serious” problem. Forty-seven percent are worried about student-loan debt. Those who haven’t reached college yet are the most worried: 55 percent of the respondents 13 to 17 years old and 45 percent of young adults said they’re worried about that debt.

That could be one reason why only 32 percent of the young people in the AP-NORC poll said that the advantages of higher education outweigh the disadvantages. Forty-five percent said the pros and cons were equal and 22 percent said college’s benefits outweigh its drawbacks.

Todd Hicks, a counselor at Cristo Rey San José Jesuit High School in San Jose, Calif., one in a network of 37 college-prep high schools that serve low-income students, said a crucial part of students’ education is financial literacy pegged to college.

“We talk about the salary difference a college degree can add to just a high school diploma,” he said. “We have the expectation that our students are going to take out federal loans if they’re eligible, and that they’re going to do work-study. We talk about loan repayments, and what a reasonable level of debt is.”

The Harris and AP-NORC poll results echo earlier studies. A 2017 poll by NBC and the Wall Street Journal found that only 49 percent of adults thought a four-year degree is worth the cost. A study by Public Agenda in 2016 found that Americans increasingly think that good jobs don’t necessarily require college degrees.

Michelle Asha Cooper leads a group that’s taking the pulse of those national doubts. Dubbed the Value Commission, it’s a convening of experts who are examining the costs and payoffs of higher education.

Families are concerned about affordability and student loan debt, said Cooper, who is also the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy. People who’ve earned college degrees can still find it hard to get good jobs and end up “wondering if college did enough to prepare them for the world of work,” Cooper said.

Young people like those in the AP-NORC poll could well be influenced by stories they hear about people they know who are struggling with student loan debt, and wonder if they should take on those burdens, Cooper said.

The commission aims to define the ways various kinds of postsecondary education pay off, to help students and families evaluate their choices. The panel hopes to produce that framework next fall, Cooper said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 2019 edition of Education Week as For Many Young People, H.S. Diploma Enough for Success

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