My love-hate relationship with my high school magnet program defined my high school experience. The Career and Technical Education curriculum, essentially a modern-day term for vocational education, focused on criminal justice, firefighting, health services, and the military. On one hand, I was enthralled by its components, but on the other, it felt synonymous with educational underachievement. Every teacher I had who knew about my participation in the magnet program expressed surprise about my performance in the classroom. Despite what may seem like an academically rigorous program, it was never treated as such; rather, it was seen as an alternative to classes that promoted college preparation. Still, the supervisor pushed us to apply to four-year institutions over other post-secondary options, telling us and our guardians that the program would help us reach the ultimate goal: a four-year degree. The list of colleges that our students have attended is broadcasted on our promotional page — it’s a badge of honor.
After our high school graduation this past June, two of my best friends, one a talented artist and one a junior firefighter, decided to forgo the traditional college experience in favor of something more in line with their interests. At first, I implored them to reconsider; a four-year degree, in my opinion, was a clear-cut marker of future success — a non-negotiable requirement for upward mobility. But eventually, I started to question why I considered this so important.
Not every job necessitates a degree, but the four-year degree is steadily becoming a standard qualification for a number of careers. At the very least, it’s a preferred attribute, especially for climbing the corporate ladder. For example, a 2021 BBC article discusses the plight of Alice Cornett, who over the last five years has applied to several managerial positions for the company she works for but has yet to receive one, which she attributes to her lack of a degree. For her, no degree means no career advancement, and this phenomenon is not exclusive to corporate careers. Though my mom has been a maternity nurse for 14 years, she isn’t eligible for a promotion. Why? She doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree.
A four-year degree has become a marker of financial success because we have perpetuated the belief that success is only plausible through one avenue — a notion that is as harmful as it is false. Though college-educated workers earn more than those with only a high school diploma in the long run, such statistics have never been comprehensive, and much of this discrepancy lies in the same blind eye that undermines the 78 cents on the dollar statistic. College degree holders and non-college degree holders tend to have very different positions, so a plethora of contributing factors that may complicate such a proclamation such as job choice or hours worked aren't taken into account. That isn’t to say there isn’t any truth to it. Just like the gender wage gap, the high school and college graduate wage gap is problematic even as an oversimplification, and if one’s employability continues to be correlated to their credentials, this number will only grow.
Middle-skills jobs, which require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree, are now hiring off a checkbox. A 2017 Harvard report found that, in 2015, 67% of production supervisor job postings asked for a college degree, yet only 16% of current production supervisors were college graduates. The same paper reports that “two-thirds of companies acknowledge that stipulating a four-year degree excludes qualified candidates from consideration.” So why have these companies begun to filter their applications based on credentials?
Whether it’s to reduce the number of overall applicants, the result of increased access to higher education, or simply societal pressures as we evolve and adapt, these companies should hire based on ability rather than a technicality. Though it’s easy to assume a college-educated applicant has the skills required by a company — it is a good standardization tool — this ignores the extraordinary candidates that come from nontraditional educational backgrounds. Societal pressures to attend college not only fail to acknowledge students’ aptitude but promote a new brand of elitism that preys on those whose abilities may be more in check with another pathway. College is not for everyone, and that should be okay. Pushing students down educational tracks not suited to their needs may be more harmful than helpful in the long run.
Post-secondary CTE education needs to be destigmatized. Shorter, job-specific training — which has undervalued benefits such as higher employment rates and smaller costs — should not be painted as a contingency plan for when one’s college aspirations go awry. Though CTE is described as a more academically rigorous replacement for job-specific vocational education of the past, it still suffers from vocational education’s lingering social stigmas. Throughout my high school career, I began to detest the implications of my CTE program, which appeared to mark me as someone who wasn’t as smart, driven, or passionate as my peers. To teachers, I often attributed my participation in it to a mistake, a spur-of-the-moment decision when I was 13 years old. None of this was true, yet after years of pressure to attend a four-year institution, I considered any alternative to be a sign of underachievement, a notion supported by the barrage of adults who assured me college is the key to success. Anything else was a second-rate option for students unfit for a college education.
Higher education is a privilege, one that I am most certainly grateful for, but for a large number of careers, a piece of paper should not differentiate me from those who followed a different path. Though it is an achievement, a degree in itself does not necessarily reflect skill. What makes a student isn’t a formal degree program, but a passion to learn and adapt. What makes a qualified candidate isn’t confined to a classroom. Though there are most certainly jobs that require college-level skills, there is also an influx that can be learned through other means.
As long as companies continue to filter applicants based on their level of education, they are doing a disservice not only to their applicants but to themselves. Instead, middle-skill companies, especially those whose current staff do not hold the same degrees that they’re requesting, should adopt alternative methods of what they perceive to be the necessary education such as co-op programs and apprenticeships. The risk of a few extra underqualified candidates is far less than the risk of missing out on an extraordinary talent.
Sometimes I wonder if Penn is really what I wanted. The truth is, I don’t know: I never saw another option.
KAYLA COTTER is a College first year from Manalapan, N.J. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.