Are Occupational Credentials the Answer to Educational Polarization?
As a scholar of education policy, three related facts have troubled me recently:
Fact #1: Our economy and society are increasingly bifurcating along educational lines.
Fact #2: People with bachelors’ degrees are doing much better than people without them.
Fact #3: Not everyone can or should earn a bachelor’s degree. (Okay so this one is part fact, part opinion)
A recent paper by economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton showed that while racial gaps in life expectancy are narrowing, the gaps in life expectancy between those with bachelor’s degrees and those without them are widening. And, tracking the last two decades of unemployment data shows that every time there is an economic contraction, those at the lowest end of the educational spectrum are hurt substantially more than those with college degrees. This is reflected in the completely different pandemic experience of more-educated Americans who were more likely to have jobs that could be performed remotely and less-educated Americans who had jobs that had to be performed in person.
If our society continues to cleave along educational lines, there will be serious negative consequences for our politics, communities, and economy.
It is tempting to respond to this problem by saying “Okay, well then everyone should get a bachelor’s degree,” but we know that many good jobs don’t require bachelor’s degrees, many people are unable or unwilling to engage with college-level work, and college is increasingly expensive.
The real question is: Is there another way?
A recent working paper published by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University may offer a better way forward. Researchers from Rice University and the RAND Corporation examined occupational credentials—post-high school certifications that denote skills or knowledge relevant to a particular field.
The authors found that certifications increased the probability of employment for workers without a bachelor’s degree by 37 percent. As they put it, “this suggests that occupational credentials act as an important signal to employers in the hiring process, especially for those with less than a bachelor’s degree.” This, as one might imagine, also translates to higher earnings.
It is increasingly clear that students need some kind of post-high school education to access more stable, more rewarding, and more remunerative jobs. Creating quality certification programs and helping link students to the training that they need could go a long way in bridging the educational divide.