Washington Watch: Traversing the credential terrain

For decades, the mantra has been that the path to quality or good jobs is paved with postsecondary credentials.

From both societal and individual perspectives, an educated workforce is essential for a strong and globally competitive U.S. economy. Associate degrees and certificates offer gateways to those good jobs, with earnings for some exceeding those of bachelor’s degree graduates.

However, most current and future good jobs require a bachelor’s degree, according to a Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce study. But not everyone supports this emphasis on baccalaureates. Some workforce experts say that the rising demand for bachelor’s degree holders is shutting many out of middle-class occupations. At the same time, they are finding that many college graduates are overqualified for the jobs they have.

So, are we under-educated, over-educated or simply mismatched?

Getting closer to that answer requires examining questions such: What role does the field of study play in terms of lifetime financial rewards? Do STEM graduates always rank as the top earners? And what matters most, the credential or the skills (the certificate or the certification), or both?

Confusing credentialing landscape

Recently, some large companies such as Apple, Bank of America, Google, Hilton, IBM, Nordstrom and Starbucks had dropped four-year degree requirements. On the other hand, some occupations are moving in the opposite direction and require a four-year degree rather than an associate degree or other credential for an entry-level position. It’s commonly called “upcredentialing” or degree inflation.

This often happens in healthcare occupations. Examples are respiratory and radiation therapists who have declared the bachelor’s degree as the entry-level credential for those professions.

It’s happened in nursing, too. The upcredentialing in the field has its roots when the Institute of Medicine in 2010 recommended that 80 percent of registered nurses hold a bachelor’s of science in nursing degree by 2020. Until then, the associate degree in nursing (ADN) was considered the entry-level credential for nursing. Even today, the ADN is the equal of the BSN in terms of eligibility to take the national nursing exam in order to obtain a state registered-nurse license.

The U.S. Department of Education also has come into the fray, addressing the issue of degree inflation in its current negotiated rulemaking on accreditation and innovation. It’s asking negotiators to provide recommendations to “prevent accreditors from responding to efforts to expand or elevate credentials that serve as minimum requirements for licensure or certification.”

Pivotal role of community colleges

The public has historically had a positive view of higher education. A recent survey found that community colleges score particularly high with respect to their contribution to a strong workforce, value and ability to prepare people for success. So what should current or prospective college students do? If they are pursuing a dream job at Google, IBM or Apple, should they no longer worry about earning a bachelor’s degree? At the other end, is a four-year degree a must for those who want to become radiation or respiratory therapists?

The 20 fastest-growing jobs through 2026 run the gamut, from those not requiring a postsecondary credential to those requiring graduate degrees. Community colleges offer a pathway for a myriad of interests and pursuits. They serve as springboards for students seeking to transfer to four-year institutions and beyond. Their mission also includes offering an array of credentials to enter the workforce and earn family-sustaining wages.

To better meet existing challenges and anticipate those yet ahead, community colleges are committed to implement the recommendations in AACC’s 21st Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges. The main principle there is that “the connection between education and American prosperity is direct and powerful.”

About the Author

Jolanta Juszkiewicz
is director of policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.