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High School Graduates Without College Degrees Want More Education

A survey of high school graduates from 2006 through 2011 who have not earned bachelor degrees and who are not currently enrolled in college shows that a strong majority are not happy with this aspect of their lives. The survey was conducted by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, who collected a sample of 544 high school graduates meeting these criteria. These newly-released results complement the survey I wrote about earlier when discussing the college education bubble and crash.

70 percent of the survey respondents believe that they need more education than just their high school diploma in order to have the successful careers they desire. The entrepreneurial dream may be to follow Bill Gates, forgo the expensive and questionably worthwhile college degree, start your own company in your garage, and become the next Microsoft or Facebook. For most people, that’s just a dream, and high school graduates faced the reality of trying to find a good job without a college education, whether to support their entrpreneurial dreams or to just make a decent living, are finding the experience difficult.

High school graduateHalf of the respondents who are lucky enough to be working took their accepted their job because it was the only position they could find or were just hoping to find a job, any job. Only 16 percent claim their job is in the field they wanted to pursue.

The next data point is the most telling. The survey respondents were asked to think back to their first year in high school and consider their own expectations. Did they plan to go to college? Out of the survey respondents, high school graduates without college degrees and not enrolled in college, 35 percent said they definitely planned to go to college and 28 percent said they probably would go to college. For these individuals, unless they something had changed their mind over the course of their four years such as belief in the entrepreneurial fantasy, they are disappointed with the outcome.

The John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development anticipated this, and designed the survey to explore the reasons behind the gulf between the desire to go to college and the rate of enrollment after high school. 34 percent of high school graduates not planning to attend college have made this choice out of financial necessity. They can’t afford the cost of pursuing a degree. 37 percent cite the need to get a job — another financial constraint — as a reason to forgo college. 26 percent say they are not interested in college.

In another statistics, the survey shows that college graduates have received much more financial support from their families — help with rent or a space to live at home, helping pay for food and health care, etc. — than high school graduates. While a family asking kids to pay for their own college degree might believe that this is a good lesson in self-sufficiency, and this depends on any particular situation, it might be a better lesson to make sure your own children have every opportunity available to enroll in and succeed in college.

Photo: Beth Rankin
John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development via New York Times

Updated April 13, 2016 and originally published June 7, 2012.

About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of shizennougyou. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

Post seconday education can be other than college. There are aprentice programs, vocational training and specialized training. Not everyone will or should go to college.

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avatar 2 Luke Landes

There’s always the argument that the world needs people to do many types of jobs that don’t require a college education. But when you have talented people with the potential of excelling with a college degree restricted from attending due to financial concerns (or due to a general mistaken belief that a college degree would be a waste of time for someone whose plan is to get rich as the next Bill Gates), then these recent high school graduates end up missing opportunities.

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avatar 3 Anonymous

“then these recent high school graduates end up missing opportunities.”

Like all the opportunities the current college grads are missing by having large student loan debts with large numbers unable to get a job?

The college value picture is get far less clear.

A college degree is not an end unto itself (unless that is one of your primary reasons for getting one which I doubt is true for more than a handful). You are not less of a person because you don’t have one. You are not clearly better off because you have one.

Part of the loss these people feel maybe real. Part of it is because of the messaging (falsely communicated) that a college degree is a ticket to a better life. It can be, but as more people get one it turns out to be true for less and less of them.

Surely some of those who don’t get a degree could have been helped by one. But for many of those who didn’t get one, their hopes for it bringing them a vastly brighter future are about as realistic as the Bill Gates fantasy.

A degree is not a panacea.

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avatar 4 Luke Landes

A college degree may not be the ticket to a better life, but it is — overall, not for everyone — a ticket to better paying career opportunities. That’s borne out in averages, so it doesn’t hold true for everyone in every situation. Yes, as a greater percentage of the population has access to higher education, the less of a distinction a degree becomes. That democratization of education has already changed the face of the Western economy. But we’re a long way off before college no longer — on average — presents a long-term financial advantage over those who have just a high school diploma. When you factor in the cost of debt, the purely financial ROI is much cloudier, but that’s a problem separate from the education itself. We should be looking for solutions to the ever increasing cost of college, not using finances as an excuse to limit opportunities.

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avatar 5 Anonymous

I guess my language was not clear. By better life I meant better paying career. I do not accept the idea that college is a ticket to a better paying career. Again it can be but it is far from certain.

Averages are meaningless. They are skewed by high earners. And they say nothing about the marginal attenders.

For instance. Lets say that you have a population of 10 people. 3 get college degrees. The average pay for college degrees is 50K, one makes 30K, one makes 50K, one makes 70K. The average of the rest is 30K. 1 of the 3 who currently get a degree did no better than the average of those without degrees. It is also increasingly likely in this pool that each of the remaining 7 who would get a degree would end up with salaries at or below the average for non-degree workers. Those averages say nothing about whether or not someone at the margins or on the sidelines should get a degree.

As a result of this based on averages college will always appear to present a long term financial advantage over those with just a high school diploma. But that is meaningless.

Let me put this another way to make it clear. Often times we group statistics into blocks. We measure people’s fertility in age ranges like 30-34,35-39,40-44 etc. You see this huge drop off at 40. Fertility appears to just fall off a cliff. But of course this is non-sense. The 35-39 year old has still quite fertile 35 year olds in it and the 40-44 year old group has people at 44 who have far less fertility. The truth is there is a curve from 35-44 that is slowly decreasing in fertility. If you group it and average it, its very misleading and makes you think that 39 is some kind of magic year that you better get pregnant before you cross into that 40 year old group. People who see these numbers actually think that way. That is the same thing that is happening with these averages for college salary. People think they have crossed into a magical group when the go from the high school group to the college group. It is simply not true. There is an entire spectrum and there are many people on the margins who are not benefited by changing groups.

” We should be looking for solutions to the ever increasing cost of college, not using finances as an excuse to limit opportunities.”

First of all I again reject the idea that college is the key to opportunities and not going is necessarily limiting those opportunities. This can be true, but this kind of thinking leads to advocating that everyone should go to college because then everyone will have more opportunities. That is just completely false. If everyone went to college it would be a net loss on the whole and a net loss for a large percentage of them. If more education is always beneficial then everyone should get a bachelors, and everyone should get a masters and everyone should get a Ph.D. And why should we stop there. Perhaps there should be even more advanced degrees. Education is a spectrum. Some should get Ph.Ds, some masters, some bachelors, some vo-tech, and some high school only. A college degree has been elevated to the level of an elixir. It is hailed as nearly magical. It is no such thing.

But more importantly the statement about looking for solutions to the every increasing costs of college indicates that you don’t think economics applies to college. I have a very simple solution. Cut off all financial aid. Within 10 years the cost of college will drop precipitously as demand for college dries up. We are offering what appears to be in the short term nearly free money for people to purchase college. Offer nearly free money that doesn’t need to be paid back for half a decade to any group of people to purchase any product you wish, cars, computers, peanuts, it doesn’t matter. Watch the price of that product sky rocket. This will continue unabated as long as this nearly free money is flowing. Of course once the bill comes due then the whining commences. But no one is thinking about that when they start because of the misleading promise of the vastly better paying career that college is going to offer to you. The false promise makes it easier to ignore the future cost of the free money because it will be easy to cover that cost with the big increase in wages.

It’s a subsidy predicated on a lie. And we are surprised when its not working for many people?

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avatar 6 Luke Landes

The most economical solution is not always the best solution. In a vacuum, the proposal to simply cut off all financial aid in order to form a more perfect free market system in education, might do what you expect — lower the cost for all. But in reality, what it is more likely to do is lower the cost a bit… just enough to make sure that those who have the best access to a college education are those who are already wealthy. If schools can’t profit from accepting students from lower income families through various types of financial aid, a college education would be a benefit only the wealthy could afford.

You can slice up the statistics in various ways, and there are certainly outliers that skew the numbers, but entry-level corporate jobs that provide the best opportunities for growth are highly competitive, and a high school diploma won’t cut it. There are other ways to make a living, sure, and this probably isn’t the best path, but it’s a career path a lot of people take. In a competitive environment, showing up without a college degree when other applicants have more education or more appropriate education is giving yourself a disadvantage. Furthermore, depending on where you want to work and what you want to do, show up with a bachelor’s degree that isn’t from the right school, and you’re disadvantaged, let alone no college degree at all.

That doesn’t mean that particular job is the only job worthwhile or the only job that will provide a lifetime of strong earnings. But for people who may not be inclined to build their own businesses, corporate jobs with growth provide at least a small bit of the potential for upward socioeconomic mobility. Eliminate financial aid, and it would further erode upward mobility. The GI Bill provided financial aid for soldiers returning from war. The military is kept alive thanks mostly to lower-income families, and the GI Bill gave returning soldiers the ability to build a life for themselves at the end of their service. Financial aid could certainly stand to see improvements in implementation, but its removal would be a disaster for the long-term viability of an economy that relies on a middle class.

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avatar 7 Anonymous

I just want to clarify that I am not saying we should eliminate financial aid. That was a solution to your proposed question offered in the extreme of completely eliminating it.

As long as it exists in it’s current form however I do believe college costs will continue to be excessive.

For instance, perhaps the colleges who accept financial aid should be on the hook for half of that aid. If the student cannot get a good enough job to pay back the loans, perhaps half of it should be discharged to the school after lets say 10 or 20 years. The school is getting lots of free money with no obligation to provide anything of economic value. I think that’s a mistake. Both the student and school benefit from financial aid. Make the school share in the risk.

That’s just one idea, I am sure there are many others. But you cannot have continued free money like this with no requirement for measurable results. This is what you get when you do that.

avatar 8 Anonymous

I hope high schools show this report to their students.

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avatar 9 Anonymous

Only 16% of those students got A’s in high school and 40% got B’s. The rest got worse grades.
So thats about 40% of the kids in question that didn’t do well at all in high school. If you can’t get B’s or better in high school then you are not likely at all to do well in college. A large % of these kids just didn’t do well in school.

But thats still 56% of them that could have expected to do well in college. For those kids I’d want more detail on why they didn’t go. Why couldn’t they afford it? If you’ve got financial need then you can get financial aid. So why can’t they afford it? Sometimes thats cause the parents refuse to pay. But can’t the students at least get a loan or two and go to community college or the local state school? Maybe their parents kick them out when their 18 with no support? (I thought that the media kept telling us that 85% or some ridculous high % of kids still live with their parents.)

There are certainly kids who should go to college who don’t get that opportunity. I think most kids do have the opportunity if they take it.

But to Apex’ point, I think we probably have a lot of kids going to college and not knowing what to major in and ending up in debt with a psychology degree and a $10 /hr job at Starbucks 5 years later.

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avatar 10 Anonymous

Another detail in the study, they aren’t all talking about 4 year degrees …
“One-fifth of the Heldrich Center’s survey respondents report needing an Associate’s
degree, 35% a Bachelor’s degree, and 10% a graduate or professional degree. The remainder either need a certificate (16%) or are unsure of what they need in the way of higher education (20%).”

Thats 35% who think an AA or certificate would be good. They’re probably right.

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avatar 11 Anonymous

I think they should learn how to be entrepreneurs. Learn by doing. Accept failure and learn from it, then try again.
Read some business books.
I like the books by Richard Branson.
I tried the entrepreneur route for two years and had mixed success. Then I went back to the regular job market, and continued reading about entrepreneurship. Now I’m ready for another go at it.
You don’t have to be Bill Gates or Zuckerberg … you don’t have to make a Microsoft or Facebook.
Even everyday businesses can work — retail shop, restaurant, lawn service, computer service, whatever it is that you have an interest in and know a little about, you can probably at least give it a shot.

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avatar 12 Anonymous

I definitely could see how this would end up working out this way. Without financial support a lot of people do feel like they just need to work a little bit to save up some money for college but unfortunately never get there. If they move out then they have even more expenses then they are used to and end up not saving much at all. That is my theory at least.

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avatar 13 Anonymous

The results of this survey don’t really surprise me. Unfortunately, going to college is so ingrained in everyone’s head as the only way to succeed, all of our brightest students do it. I think many of the really talented college bound kids don’t need college to succeed but they do it anyways.

I bet the majority of the kids in this survey probably weren’t too motivated and honestly probably weren’t that bright. Now they realize they need to work harder to make more money.

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avatar 14 qixx

In fact some of the brightest tend to be those that go to college, get what they can/want/need from it and then move on without the degree. My favorite example of this is always Steve Jobs. The important factor is not the degree but the additional education.

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avatar 15 Anonymous

I wonder what will be the worse situation than currently we are facing, seems whole world is facing short fall of jobs. What new comers are going to do always surprise me as there are many already with the degrees waiting for jobs; though education is necessary but I think high school degree is enough.

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avatar 16 Anonymous

“… it might be a better lesson to make sure your own children have every opportunity available to enroll in and succeed in college.”

The parent’s contribution is only a small part of the equation. The student’s desire and ability is a much larger part. As your post details, many students are confused and lacking a career or education plan. Many others don’t have the desire or educational background to succeed.

Here is my own personal experience with college. Myself, my Mom and all of my brothers and sisters have college degrees (some AA and some BA). We all worked our way through college with no aid or assitance, some while raising children with demanding career jobs or businesses. None of us said, “We don’t have any money so I guess we can’t go.” We all just stepped up and made it happen.

I fully understand that college has become a lot more expensive. But, a lot of kids I talk to now seem to have more excuses than ambition. I saved up college funds for both of my kids, so they would have the opportunity I didn’t. One has dropped out and the other has been out of high school for a year and hasn’t started college yet. Opprotunity takes effort.

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avatar 17 Luke Landes

The student’s desire and ability is a much larger part. As your post details, many students are confused and lacking a career or education plan. Many others don’t have the desire or educational background to succeed.

With this point, we should probably consider why this is the case that students don’t have a plan. While students are technically “adults” when they enter college and should be considering their future and making plans, most are not, so there needs to be some guidance. My college offered help with life and career planning, as do most I would think, but I didn’t give it much thought. I had a plan — one that I ended up changing years later — but there are many who float aimlessly, not taking advantage of the services the college has to offer. And I think the inspiration for making a plan should come from parents, as well. Not having a plan isn’t really a good enough excuse for forgoing college, all other things being equal. Life rarely follows the plan you set for yourself when you’re 18, anyway, but it’s good to be moving forward in any direction, even if it’s not towards your final destination.

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avatar 18 Anonymous

That’s a great point Flexo.

I didn’t have an academic plan when I was in my first couple of years in college and it cost me a lot of wasted time and money. That couldn’t be blamed on my parents because I had already moved out and was paying my own way through college.

I made sure my son saw a counselor and had a plan, so he didn’t make the same mistake as me. But, he still seemed to want to drift along and take whatever classes he wanted. Some students are just way more motivated than others.

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avatar 19 Anonymous

Is there any survey which shows that a person is denied job promotion as he/she doesn’t have a higher degree?
If any 1 knows please let me know that coz we are providing distance learning education courses so such people which help them to upgrade themselves and also to get a promotion in there job.

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avatar 20 qixx

While not a survey i can actually give a first hand account of this. In 2000 the company i was working for informed me to be eligible for any promotions i needed a higher degree. This was a computer programming company and the higher degree was a Bachelor’s (i was only a High School grad at the time). The company was nice enough to hold a position for me for 3 years to finish the degree, but did require i have a degree to move up.

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