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Grad Nation: If Not College, Then What?


A person holding tools.

Image caption: Interest in skilled trades among Gen Z has grown significantly.

For decades, earning a four-year college degree has been seen as the key to upward mobility. Research from Georgetown University confirms that those with a bachelor's degree earn significantly more over their lifetimes than those without. However, rising college costs and increasing student debt are causing many to question the value of a college education.

Rising Costs and Increasing Debt

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that the cost of college has far outpaced inflation over the past 40 years, leading to student loan debt in the United States surpassing $1.77 trillion. Alarmingly, 3.5 million Americans over the age of 60 still owe student loans, according to the New American think tank.

A Shift in Young Adult Decisions

In the past, young adults who didn't attend college pursued other forms of postsecondary education, got jobs, started businesses, or joined the military. Today, many young adults appear to be choosing a "None of the Above" approach. The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas reports that the percentage of young adults between 18 and 24 who are "disconnected"—neither working nor pursuing education—is at its highest in nearly four decades. This trend helps explain why one in three U.S. adults aged 18 to 34 still live at home with their parents.

The Job Market for Gen Z

While it might seem that Generation Z doesn't want to work, many express frustration that available jobs don't pay enough to cover the ever-increasing cost of living. Unlike previous generations, Gen Z values jobs that align with their personal values and offer a reasonable work-life balance. Despite skepticism about the value of a college degree, acquiring some level of education or training remains necessary to secure well-paying jobs that meet these criteria.

Questioning the Value of College

Given these economic realities, it's unsurprising that research by Gallup shows Americans' confidence in higher education has declined substantially. This shift in perception is reflected in declining college enrollment rates over the past decade, as reported by Inside Higher Ed.

Exploring Alternative Pathways

According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), interest in skilled trades among Gen Z has grown significantly. Recruitment firm HireLevel notes that skilled trades offer high-demand occupations with job security, competitive pay, minimal debt, hands-on learning, and diverse career opportunities. Many workers in skilled trades report job satisfaction.

Healthcare and technology sectors also offer good-paying positions that don't require a degree. Job search site Indeed highlights that many roles in these fields can be obtained through certifications, apprenticeships, and on-the-job training.

Bridging the Perception Gap

Despite the potential of skilled trades, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) notes that many teens remain skeptical about these opportunities. This skepticism stems from a lack of understanding about the earning potential, societal bias against "blue-collar" jobs, and the K-12 education system's emphasis on college degrees.

While more employers are dropping college degree requirements to expand their candidate pools, this hasn't always led to increased hiring of non-degreed individuals. When non-degreed candidates are hired, they often earn less than their degree-holding counterparts.

Helping Young People Navigate Their Future

It's crucial for young people to understand the complex realities of today's job market before making life-changing decisions about their education and careers. Providing them with the knowledge to ask the right questions and make informed plans is essential.

Junior Achievement's Role

Junior Achievement (JA) is dedicated to helping streamline the transition from education to employment by focusing on work and career readiness. JA partners with community organizations to help students connect what they learn in school to real-world jobs and careers. Research conducted by Ipsos for Junior Achievement shows that JA Alumni report positive impacts on their education and career outcomes.

JA Alumni say their JA experiences influenced their decisions to pursue higher education, their professional development, and their career paths. Many report that JA motivated them to succeed and exposed them to new work opportunities and career paths. A significant number of JA Alumni also report high levels of job satisfaction and fulfillment in their careers.

Nearly three-in-four JA Alumni who graduated from college work in a field related to their studies, compared to only one-in-four American college graduates overall, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Additionally, more than two-thirds of JA Alumni say they currently work in their dream careers, far surpassing the national average.

To learn more about how Junior Achievement can help you or to get involved in your community, visit Together, we can help the next generation navigate their future with confidence and purpose.


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