One of the chief questions that school counselors, teachers and parents face on a daily basis is how do we address college alternatives in a culture that views any other outcome as failure. In our own student survey, 87% of students said that they intended to go to college upon graduation from high school. Of that group, 67% indicated that the primary reason for that choice was that if they did not, they, “would be viewed as a failure.”

This is not an accidental cultural phenomenon … it is the result of purposeful marketing, politics, and business pressures initiated in response to the decline of manufacturing in the 80’s.

Let’s look at the numbers. Approximately 47% of the US workforce has an associates degree or above. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), only 27% of jobs require a post-secondary degree. The gap equates to approximately 21 million workers that are effectively “underemployed.” This doesn’t, of course, tell the whole story. As the Georgetown University Center on Education report points out, the BLS figures significantly underestimate both the current demand (in terms of actual hiring decisions) and the reality that some post-secondary education is projected as a requirement for 65% of job vacancies over the next decade.

In reality, both of these reports reflect different approaches to education demand, neither of which is particularly connected to requirements found in job listings. A report from Burning Glass, a workforce development business intelligence organization reveals that 65% of postings for Executive Assistants call for a bachelor’s degree (while only 19% of current workers actually have a degree). This “credential gap” is reviewed across multiple sectors and paints a picture of growing, not shrinking demand for advanced degrees in many jobs that traditionally have not required them.

So do we continue to push students toward college degrees? Unquestionably, workers looking to advance in their careers will need some level of post-secondary education. They may, however not need this education first. In fact, one of the interesting findings of the Burning Glass report is that jobs with clear credentialing requirements … requirements that effectively identify key skill requirements that lead to performance and productivity… resist what they refer to as, “up-credentialing.” Up-credentialing is the term applied to jobs where the lack of clearly outlined skill requirements leads to increasing educational requirements as the default for achieving higher levels of proficiency within the occupation. Non-STEM jobs are most at risk as the skill requirements are generally far more difficult to define.

What this means, is that professional credentials and well-developed credentialing paths generally provide a superior pathway to a career than simply recommending a degree pathway. STEM occupations, especially health care, but certainly many others, provide numerous pathways to jobs. To engage parents and students in discussions about career options that provide alternatives to the traditional or undeclared college route, teachers and counselors … and parents, should familiarize themselves with the world of professional credentials. The majority of credentials provide clear direction for career discussion by outlining skill, education and experience requirements that establish job qualification and readiness.

Where to start? — why not try some of these links to get going:


2. Georgetown University Center for Education – Certificate Gateway Report

3. Career One-Stop Credential overview

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