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The Changing Views of a College Education

By Pat Brothwell - February 11, 2020

Generation Z (which the Pew Research Center defines as anyone born between 1997 and 2012) thinks college is wholly unnecessary. 

That’s not entirely true, but if you’re someone who spends a lot of time scouring headlines, we wouldn’t blame you for reaching that conclusion. 

The thing is, it’s not entirely false, either. 

This past fall, a spate of articles claimed that young people in our country don’t think it necessary to attend college to be successful. Education Week wrote, “Many People Think High School Diploma is Enough, Poll Finds”, Marketwatch wrote, “Half of young Americans say their degree is Irrelevant to their work,” and the New York Post went the most hyperbolic with, “Half of Americans say college is no longer necessary.”

We live in world of clickbait. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there in the land of content creation, so you almost can’t blame these publications for leading with drama, but reality is more nuanced. Young people don’t think the concept of a post-secondary degree is irrelevant. Many of them still find college necessary. 19.9 million people enrolled in college in 2019. However, the perception of what a college degree could offer and what makes it valuable has changed considerably in just the last few years. A shift is happening. 

A poll by the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research cited in the aforementioned Education Week article found 48% of 13-29 year olds polled think a high school diploma is sufficient to becoming a successful adult. A Harris Poll cited in the same article found that only 23% of 13-29-year olds believe a college degree is sufficient for success, although data we’ve talked about in other blogs has found a correlation between higher wages and college degrees. Yet another poll, this one conducted by WGBH (Boston’s Public Broadcast Network) found that most Americans polled (68%) thought college was worth attending. In this same poll, 55% of people felt that while it's worth attending, it's not necessary to get ahead in life. Those stats are taking all ages into consideration. The under 40 crowd? Only 4 out of 10 found college worth attending. 

There's no doubt that mounting student debt crippling the under 40 crowd is a main detractor. Transparency plays a key role too. The amount of information available means the machinations behind the way the world works are clearer than ever. A college education was once seen as the first step towards the American Dream, but more and more evidence shows that may not be true. The Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce published a report last year entitled “Born to Win, Schooled to Lose,”in which they assert that “In America, it’s often better to be rich, than smart.” It’s a hard statement to refute all things considered. Think about this: will a degree beat nepotism? Will it trump those born with a silver spoon? This may contribute to the attitude published in the same study that, “less than half of all Americans—and less than one third of people from racial or ethnic minority groups—believe that if you work hard, you will get ahead.” Clearly, people are losing faith in the old way of doing things. 

The aforementioned Harris Poll also found that only 28% of college graduates felt a college degree absolutely essential. It could be for pessimistic reasons like those we just discussed, or because the defined path to success is changing. The Marketwatch article mentioned earlier said that 1 in 5 of both Generation Z and millennials (which the Pew Research Center defines as anyone with a 1981-1996 birthday) say they may chose not to go to college in the traditional four-year-degree-right-out-of-high-school-sense. Some of their options? 30% have contemplated taking a gap year. A third are considering community college

The poll also found something that backs up another trend we’ve been seeing: there are some skills valued over a degree. Business leaders are stressing this too. Apple CEO Tim Cook has said that in his opinion, skills, especially coding, are more vital than a degree, and indicated that half of Apple’s employees don't have one. Elon Musk very recently indicated the same thing. Reports by Glassdoor.com and LinkedIn found many top companies like Dell, Alphabet (Google’s Parent company), Amazon, and Penguin/Random House have started to take away the “degree requirement” for positions where applicable experience is just as beneficial. 

Glassdoor.com also gathered data from the applications processed through their website, and found the majority of Generation Z aspires to work in tech. The top 5 companies they applied to are IBM, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Deloitte, all of which appear on the lists of companies that no longer require a college degree. You know what else Generation Z wants to be? Influencers (even though most influencers themselves don't like that word; they'd prefer "content creators"). 86% of Generation Z would post sponsored content if given the chance, and 54% actively want to be an influencer as their main career. Alarmed? Sorry. It keeps going. Students are three times more likely to want to be a YouTuber than an astronaut. 

An NPR broadcast last summer entitled "How Influencing as a Career Has Impacted Today's Economy" offered some additional insight. Former influencer Sara Li, who parlayed being an Instagram activist to writing for Teen Vogue, said, "Whether you like influencers or not, it's a very profitable career. And I would say it's not unrealistic to quit your full-time job to become an influencer." While Sara had a degree, degrees aren't necessary for the world of sponsored posts. Someone with a significant number of social media followers can make more money posing in a pair of sunglasses than a certain content writer with a literature degree makes in a year. As this piece in Wired entitled "Colleges Need Influencers, but Do Influencers Need College?" succinctly puts it, "If you want to be an influencer, your YouTube channel and Instagram page are the only résumé you really need."

Despite all this, degrees are still valued, just valued in a different light. Common knowledge once dictated, get a degree, get a good job, but now it's about what type of degree. A poll (final poll, we swear!)  by Gallup and Strada Education found it’s not a correlation between money and a degree that made a person see the value in their education, but whether that degree is relevant to the job they get. We're moving slowly but surely away from a world where accolades and name recognition matter, towards one where skills, experiences, and specific job training win. As a youthful up and comer named Bob Dylan once wrote, "The times, they are a changin'."

To bring it all home, Generation Z does not think college is wholly unnecessary by any means...they just don’t think it’s wholly necessary the way we've been doing it. They're ready to make a change. 

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