After a full year of employment upheaval, the job economy is finally returning to normal as more and more businesses begin to operate as usual amidst widespread COVID vaccine access. Even so, 2020 was a wake-up call for many workers; careers they once thought stable and sufficient might seem unfulfilling or inadequate for maintaining a sought-after lifestyle. As a result, plenty of people are eying advanced credentials, especially as online education access has radically improved over the course of the pandemic.
Yet, as Americans and international students enroll in higher education in record numbers, an important question is emerging: Does a bachelor degree mean anything anymore?
Many “Advantages” of a Bachelor Degree Are Outdated
For the baby boomers and even gen x, not many Americans had access to any amount of higher education. Universities were expensive — unlike public K-12 education provided by the state — and obtaining a degree required years of unpaid effort. For much of the 20th century, it was more advantageous for young adults to go straight from high school into the workforce, where they could gain related skills and knowledge on-the-job while earning wages. As a result, the select few who did invest in a higher education were highly prized by employers and typically gained a leg up into management positions.
Unfortunately, the same isn’t true for millennials and zoomers. Today, enrolling in college is an expected next step after college, which means an overwhelming number of job applicants have bachelor degrees by default. Instead of catapulting candidates into higher positions with better pay, bachelor degrees have become essential for gaining entry-level employment. In fact, over 60 percent of American job postings list a bachelor degree as a mandatory qualification, almost regardless of whether a degree is truly necessary to complete the work.
On one hand, this makes a bachelors degree program more critical to young people who want to enter the workforce; on the other hand, it completely devalues the degree because often the field of the degree, which school provided it or its quality of completion (the GPA or some similar measure) rarely matter. In most cases, the bachelor degree holds the same significance as a high school diploma, in that it is seen as a fundamental requirement for consideration of a job.
Yet, despite being a basic necessity for entering the workforce, a bachelor degree has become even more prohibitively expensive than it was in the 20th century. Research shows that one year of attendance at a four-year public university costs about 40 percent of a family’s income, which is more than the recommended percentage cost of housing for an American family. Even with diligent saving and careful spending, most college students graduate with several thousands of dollars of debt — and the entry-level positions they qualify for hardly help to pay that debt down.
So, is it worthwhile to get a bachelor degree in 2021? The answer is, undeniably, yes — but that doesn’t mean young people should expect special treatment after earning one. Instead, smart students will plan a better path through higher education, to reduce the downsides of bachelor degree programs and maximize their earnings after graduation.
There Is a Smarter Solution
While tradition sees an 18-year-old fresh from high school moving into the campus dorms of a prestigious four-year university, this isn’t exactly worth a young person’s time or money. A better way of gaining valuable education credentials includes:
- Get a Bachelor Degree Online
The stigma around online education is all but gone, especially because employers often can’t tell the difference between an online degree program and a traditional degree program from the same university. Online students can complete courses faster to graduate sooner, reducing their financial load and allowing them to move into graduate-level education which provides greater returns in the workforce.
- Focus on Graduate Education
A master degree today holds much of the same employment power as a bachelor degree did 50 years ago, especially for young people. Those eager to reach higher levels of employment (and greater earning potential) immediately upon entering the workforce should prioritize a master program in a field related to their intended career.
- Bolster Skills and Network
Regardless of how much higher education a young person pursues, it is imperative that they put time and effort into the right aspects of their degree program. While knowledge can be valuable, skills tend to be more practical after graduation; students need to practice working with the tools they will use on the job. Additionally, students should recognize the use of building and maintaining a strong network, which should include their peers as well as professors and other professionals in their chosen field. Attending conferences, working internships and participating in other work-study experiences can help with this.
A bachelor degree does something — it forms an important stepping stone to more important academic qualifications. Young people still need bachelor degrees, but gaining them swiftly and inexpensively is key.
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