Over the past few decades, jobs increasingly require some training or education beyond high school. In 1973, 72% of jobs just required a high school degree, with only 12% of jobs requiring additional education or an Associate’s Degree, and 16% of jobs requiring a college degree or other advanced education. By 2020, this will have flipped, and only 36% of jobs will simply accept a high school degree, with nearly one-in-three jobs requiring some advanced education/Associates Degree (30%), and 35% requiring a college degree or other advanced education.
It is important to expand access to higher education. Generally, the more education a person has, the more likely that person will be employed and earning a higher salary. However, higher education alone is not sufficient to bridge the skills gap between jobseekers and employers and expand access to economic mobility for all workers for three primary reasons: (1) not every person can afford a college or graduate degree, (2) a college degree does not provide the same benefits to workers of color and women in employment and salary, and (3) even with a college or graduate degree, workers must be prepared for lifelong learning and retraining during their career.
Two generations ago, students could attend college for free or pay for college while attending by working part-time and during summers, enabling them to graduate without any debt. But, college tuition and fees have increased 1,120% since 1978. If the cost of attending college simply increased due to inflation over forty years, it would have gone up by only 275%. Part of this exponential increase is attributed to states dramatically reducing their funding for state colleges and universities, causing those institutions of higher education to pass the additional costs along to students.
Now, students must take on a substantial debt burden to pursue an advanced education. The cumulative student loan debt is now the second highest consumer debt in the United States—behind only mortgages. There are over 44 million Americans with student loan debt, and over 10% of these borrowers are delinquent or in default on their student loans. Due to demographic changes and the financial consequences of college and graduate debt, college enrollment declined for a sixth straight year for this past academic year (2017 to 2018).
Moreover, the rewards of higher education are not uniform. People of color have to borrow substantially more money to finance their education, and this debt burden increases their likelihood of not completing their degree. Upon graduation from college, people of color are less likely to be employed than their white counterparts, and they earn less than other college graduates. Even Black graduates of the most elite colleges and universities do not receive the same advantage in employment opportunities and salary—their prestigious degrees only make them as competitive as white job candidates from less selective universities. In 2015, Black people earned just 75% as much as white people in median hourly earnings.
Women also continue to earn less than men, regardless of their educational attainment. Female college graduates earn 86 cents for every dollar paid to male college graduates, despite having nearly identical levels of experience and education. This pay discrimination persists throughout women’s careers, increasing during their prime earning years. Women of color, facing discrimination on the basis of race and gender, earn the least. For every dollar paid to a white man, Black women are paid only 63 cents, and Latina women receive just 54 cents.
Finally, due to the rapidly changing global economy and the onset of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, people—even those with college and graduate degrees—must continuously upgrade and expand their skill sets to adapt to changing technology and career fields. This means that both incumbent and new employees will need to have the flexibility to learn new skills on-the-job. The expectation of continuous learning and expansion of skills throughout one’s career is common among many professions, including law, medicine, computing and information technology, and all fields of academia and research. Now, it will become the expectation for nearly all career fields.