By the time the final bells sound in all of the nation’s high schools this year, an estimated 3.4 million Americans will join the ranks of high school graduates.

These young men and women will then face a choice: go to college, or go to work.

For decades, Americans have increasingly chosen to earn higher degrees. Word on the street is that today’s bachelor’s degree represents the stable job and steady income a high school diploma used to earn in the 1960s and 1970s.

Young people continue to take that message to heart.

On the whole, today’s generation of Americans is undeniably the best educated ever. In 2013, over 65 million Americans had completed four years of college or more, compared to 50 million in 2003, 36 million in 1993, and just 25 million in 1983.

The average American receives almost 1.5 more years of schooling than his 1980 counterpart, according to the United Nations Development Program.

But, recent evidence calls into question the advisability of the choices stoking these trends.


A mismatch of skills and opportunities

In reality, the supply of available jobs, and the credentials these positions require, has not kept pace with the expansion of higher education.

This research indicates that, since 2000, there has been a decrease in the availability of cognitively demanding jobs. As a result, college grads are now frequently taking positions that require skills well below their level of training and knowledge.

It seems that the concentrated period of technological advancement between 1980 and 2000, which resulted in a high demand for employees with well-established reasoning abilities, management skills, and creativity, is now over.

While there has been strong growth in the job market at the top and bottom of the cognitive ladder, demand in the middle—previously occupied by the typical college graduate—has dropped off.

Journalist and academic Thomas Edsall recently analyzed these findings in the context of social tension and technological infrastructure, but they also have broader implications for the structure of American higher education.

There is a fundamental mismatch between the educational experiences of the nation’s available labor force and the educational requirements of the available jobs.

This problem requires immediate attention if degrees earned at U.S. institutions of higher education are to continue to have currency in the modern global marketplace.

The changing market of higher education

With financial returns on bachelor’s degrees stagnating, and the cost of four-year postsecondary education rising, the current economic and labor conditions make the conventional college experience less attractive.

Not only is college no longer the key to the American dream, but increasingly it is an experience that has little direct bearing upon the demands of the labor market, and, perhaps more important, languishing influence on individual earning power.

These findings will no doubt be unsettling for those who believe a post-secondary liberal arts education is the key to a cultivated and well-rounded citizenry, but they need not ring the death knell of higher education as a convention.

Rather, the findings should challenge us to rethink how we structure higher education programs and institutions so they fit contemporary market conditions.

An under-appreciated opportunity

Career and technical education (CTE) programs are one way to turn.

CTE includes a wide array of programs, ranging in subject, length, and educational requirements, all funded by a combination of federal, state, and local grants.

These programs range from keyboard classes in high schools to sponsored apprenticeships to vocational classes in plumbing and heating. In 2011, 7.3 million secondary and 4.4 million postsecondary students participated in such courses.

While the need for alternative institutions of higher education has arguably increased, enrollment figures for CTE degrees remained largely stagnant over the past decade.

In fact, funding has actually declined slightly in recent years. This indicates the federal government underestimates the role these programs play, and are likely to continue to play, in the job market. As the diminishing returns and exorbitant costs of a traditional four-year college experience become more evident, we need alternatives.

Changing with the times

The key to CTE programs is their flexibility and variety.

In a recent Q&A on education with Tumblr founder David Karp, President Obama encouraged “young people to be good consumers of education,” reminding youth that there are options other than the typical liberal arts college education that can provide financial returns later in life.

As the traditional college degree decreases in appeal, more specific degree options such as those provided by CTE programs could provide more targeted curriculum. This would cut down on costly, unnecessary training, and maximize future returns in a job market increasingly dichotomized between high-level and low-level cognitively demanding jobs.

As Edsall points out, we are still becoming acquainted with the geography of the twenty-first century labor landscape, particularly in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

Our collective ability to provide this generation’s youth more diverse and adaptable educational opportunities will be essential to maintaining a thriving national economy.