The education world has a new villain: aggressively marketed for-profit colleges that leave graduates with lots of debt and few job options. But taking on these schools and challenging their right to federal student loans is missing a broader point: the entire higher education system -- not just the for-profits -- has failed to adequately connect colleges to careers.
In an age when the unemployment rate for young college graduates is nearly ten percent -- the highest number in 25 years -- it's time for us to admit that there's a missing link in our higher education system. Namely, not all college programs are providing students with clear paths to viable careers. The for-profit colleges are simply the easy targets. Many programs are leaving graduates unprepared for the job market, and prospective students deserve to know whether the programs they enroll in will help them earn enough income to pay back the debt -- in many cases, massive debt -- many of them will accrue.
Research has shown that college credentials are now a prerequisite for a middle-class lifestyle, but it's not always intuitive -- some certificates earn more than particular bachelor's degrees. It's a safe bet that many of the college students across the nation who find themselves majoring in debt would be surprised to learn that 27 percent of people with licenses and certificates earn more than the average bachelor's degree recipient does.
The Department of Education just released a mountain of data showing that graduates of many less-than two-year programs do not earn enough money to pay back their debt. Shouldn't students considering private and public four-year colleges get to see this kind of data for their schools, too? Wouldn't you think twice about taking on debt and enrolling in a program if you found out that graduates of your prospective university don't earn enough income to pay back their loans?
It is possible to build a user-friendly system that would inform consumers about these program discrepancies. Much of this data is already out there -- unemployment insurance, wage records, transcript and program data, job openings data, and detailed information on occupational competencies have already been compiled. What is missing is a tool that puts all of this information together and makes it publicly available to all who are considering enrolling in a postsecondary program. Some states have already started down this path, and other surely will follow with proper prompting, such as increased federal money to support linking all this data effectively.
Before making a choice by wading through the piles of slick college brochures that arrive in their mailboxes, imagine if prospective students were able to go to a trusted, impartial website and quickly find out how adequately each program prepares its graduates for job placement, and what the average salaries for graduates of each program are. Such a system would empower students to make educated choices about what program is best for them, and what real-world jobs it will prepare them for.
This system would not promote or attack institutions based on their tax status, and it is not to suggest that any of the routes is, on the whole, better or worse than the others. Rather, it's a system that would be able to empirically assert that there are particular programs at all types of colleges that, on average, help prepare students for jobs, and others that consistently do not. Students have the right to know which are which.
Read more about closing the college-to-career gap here: Missing the Point.