PhotoIn recent years there have been studies that have addressed the question of whether a college education is still worth the massive cost. These studies almost always conclude that it is.

New research from Public Agenda, a public policy organization, suggests these previous studies may have been talking to the wrong people.

While policymakers overwhelmingly agree that a college degree is the most reliable path to prosperity, consumers are not so sure. The survey found only 42% of Americans believe a college degree is necessary. Over half – 59% – say there are many ways to succeed without one.

“I think there's declining confidence in the direct relationship between a college credential of some kind and a job that pays a family a living wage,” Alison Kadlec, Public Agenda’s Director of Higher Education and Workforce Development, told ConsumerAffairs.

But wait a minute. Isn't the unemployment rate below 5%? Yes, but there is also a record number of American adults not working. If they aren't actively looking for a job, they aren't counted as unemployed.

Can't find skilled people

At the same time, American employers are complaining they can't find enough skilled workers to fill all their slots.

Kadlec says it's not a case that colleges aren't teaching useful skills. Employers say they want people who have critical thinking skills, communication, writing, problem solving, and the ability to deal with diverse audiences. She says these are the kinds of skills that are the bedrock of a liberal arts education. Or at least, they once were.

When college graduates can't find jobs and employers complain they can't find people with skills, it may mean the path to the middle class is about to change.

“I think what it's signaling is that the traditional credential structure isn't reflecting either the realities of the workplace, or the realities of the modern student,” Kadlec said. “There are disconnects all over the place.”

All about money

Kadlec says the research also finds a growing disenchantment with the college system. Fifty-nine percent of those questioned said colleges are too focused on money and not enough on educating.

Kadlec says part of this cynicism may stem from what she called a “dysfunctional” college transfer system, in which students transferring from one institution to another find many credits earned at one institution don't transfer to another, requiring them to take the courses again, adding to tuition bills.

While student loan debt tends to get most of the attention from policymakers, Kadlec believes there will be increasing focus on what students are actually getting for their money.

College completion

“For the last couple of years, the most important marker has been college completion,” she said. “What happens to students after they graduate is the place most people understand they need to be looking.”

For-profit colleges are already getting that scrutiny from the Department of Education, but so far most non-profit colleges have gotten a pass, at least from the government. The market, however, may be judging them differently.

Alternatives to college

There are new kinds of credentials that can be obtained faster and more cheaply and that are highly valued by employers. An example is a “coding academy,” which provides intensive training in writing code over a short period of time, and whose graduates easily find lucrative jobs.

As a result, she says employers may soon show wider flexibility in demanding a bachelor's degree for entry level jobs.

Kadlec says it's an issue public colleges and universities will need to address, because as people become more suspicious of higher education's motives, they will become more savvy consumers and look for education and credentials that will actually do them some good in the real world.

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