Research by Public Agenda, Prepared for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

FINDING No 2: Despite their worries about the future and mixed experiences with jobs, most high school graduates believe there are still ways to succeed at work without additional education.

Most high school graduates may sense that economic insecurity will be a continuing part of their lives, but most still believe it’s possible to get a good job without a college degree. A majority (57 percent) say that there are many ways to succeed in the job market without college, compared with 40 percent who say that a “college education is necessary for a person to be successful in today’s work world.” Not surprisingly perhaps, the results are almost exactly the opposite for young people with degrees. Most (55 percent) believe that “college is necessary” for success at work, a belief that presumably motivated them to complete their own programs of study. Americans in general increasingly see a college degree as a minimum requirement for getting ahead at work.12

For high school graduates, the idea that you can still make it in today’s workplace without a higher education credential seems to stem from several sources. One is the belief that the economy offers a wide variety of jobs, and that there are some good jobs that don’t require a degree. In fact, heading down this “non-college track” appears to be what many young people without degrees have in mind. Almost 4 in 10 (39 percent) high school graduates said that their current credential, a high school diploma, is all they need for their career goals. In focus groups conducted in connection with the project, young people without degrees often talked about jobs they might have in the future and/or how they might work their way up in their employment. Some mentioned that they would like to open their own businesses or work on their own.

Moreover, many of the high school graduates believed that employers often ask for college degrees for work that could be done just as well by someone without the credential: 35 percent strongly agree that employers hire college graduates for jobs that could be done just as well—or better—by those without a degree.

Others seemed to see the economy as changeable and unpredictable, and suggested that it’s just not possible to say now exactly what kind of education will be useful as time goes by. A high school grad from Fort Wayne said this: “Who knows what the right degree to get into is? Who knows what the right field is to get into? What’s it going to be in five years? Ten years? What if I don’t pick the right field? What if I go to school and decide to do something, and [suppose] it takes eight years to get that degree, and in eight years I don’t have a job?”

Maybe a college degree is not what it once was

Another factor is that a standard four-year college degree seems to have lost some of its luster as a guaranteed ticket to financial security—and this was true for both high school and college graduates. Given a list of 11 hypothetical people with different levels of education, the survey respondents picked only one as having a reliably secure economic future. Among all young adults, 7 in 10 said that a person with a graduate degree such as a J.D. or a Ph.D. is very likely to be financially secure in their lifetime. And just one percent of all the young people surveyed believed that someone who drops out of high school is very likely to be secure.

But for the categories in between, the results were far more mixed. Just over a third of high school graduates (36 percent) said that someone who didn’t go to college but became an apprentice in a trade (such as carpentry or plumbing) would be successful. A similar number (33 percent) thought it was very likely that someone who enlisted in the military would find financial security down the line. And only 35 percent of high school graduates said it was very likely that someone with a B.A. degree from their state university would be financially secure in their lifetime. Here, at least, the differences between the views of high school and college graduates were fairly modest. Young college graduates may be reasonably optimistic about their personal future economic security—remember that 55 percent think it’s very likely that they themselves will be financially secure—but just over a third (34 percent) thought it was very likely that a person with a B.A. from a state university could count on economic stability.

There were two notable differences between the high school and college graduates. One is that the high school grads were nearly twice as optimistic about the value of an associate’s degree: 26 percent of high school graduates (compared to only 14 percent of college graduates) said that someone who receives an associate’s degree is “very likely” to be financially secure in their lifetime. The numbers were exactly the same for someone who gets a one-year “IT” certificate from a technical school: 26 percent of high school graduates thought that such a person would be financially secure compared to only 14 percent of college graduates.

A young high school grad from Washington, D.C., said: “If you’re going towards the job that you’re getting a [certification for], it is beneficial . . . . If there’s two people side by side in comparison, and one’s . . . [got a certificate] for that, as opposed to someone who’s doing general [undergraduate degree] or something else. . . . I think that they would probably pick the person going towards the specific, as opposed to not.”

Public Agenda conducted a survey in 2009 looking at the views of young people aged 22–30 who start college programs but don’t complete them. Those young adults were less likely than college graduates to see a college degree as a necessity. They were also less likely to envision it as a prerequisite for fulfilling their own aspirations. For example, just over half (52 percent) of those who dropped out of college said that over the long run you earn more money if you have a college degree, compared with 66 percent of college graduates. Half of the young people who had left school without a degree said they knew many people who were doing well without one.

But two years later, there seems to be a subtle difference in the way that young people without higher education credentials see the world. Most fully accept that college is a good thing and can be very beneficial in terms of getting a good job and building a future. But many don’t seem to see it as an outright necessity. Perhaps since they don’t see any genuine likelihood of getting a degree themselves—because of cost or poor academic preparation or another reason—they look for another route. Rather than feeling bitter or hopeless, they believe that if they work hard, they’ll be able to make it even without a college diploma.

In this survey, when we asked young parents how important it was that their own children go to college, 84 percent of the college graduates said it was very important, but only 62 percent of the high school graduates said the same. It’s still a majority, but the commitment to college for their children is clearly not as strong as with college graduates—and perhaps not as strong as it was a few years ago, when 77 percent of those who did not complete college said that it was very important that their children attend college.

As we discuss in Finding Three, one explanation for this shift may be that more young people are beginning to weigh the value of a college degree against the financial dangers of borrowing money for tuition and not being able to earn the money back.

[12] Immerwahr, J., Johnson, J., Ott, A., and Rochkind, J. (2010). “Squeeze Play 2010: Continued Public Anxiety On Cost, Harsher Judgments On How Colleges Are Run.” National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and Public Agenda.