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Skill Training vs. Higher Education: Not Created Equal?


As you are nearing high school graduation, you have two paths before you: either continue your education and enroll in college or get some vocational training and join the workforce. Which one is the best?

This is an age-old debate with no answer that fits all. Of course, each option has its merits and tradeoffs. Traditionally, higher education was presented as a path to academia and research. At the same time, vocational training means receiving skills enabling you to join the workforce almost immediately. However, the lines are blurred – and become even fuzzier year after year with hands-on courses within college programs (for example, patient assessment in medicine) and college degrees giving a deep theoretical understanding of traditionally working specializations, such as associate degrees in welding or cosmetology.

Moreover, people often choose to enter college and get a degree after years of working to consolidate their experience, gain deeper knowledge, and be able to advance and contribute to their field on a new level. It’s not an either/or situation anymore. Still, the debates seem to be going with renewed force as to which path is preferable. In this post, I attempt to shed light on new arguments in this dispute.

Why do people choose higher education?

A college diploma has long been associated with privilege. Some prestigious fields, like law or medicine, require a degree even at the entry level. Moreover, higher education is no longer seen as a path exclusively to academia but an entryway to more high-paying white-collar jobs. According to U.S. Career Institute, the median lifetime earnings of a person with a high-school diploma is $1,576,000. At the same time, a Bachelor’s degree holder earns almost twice as much – $2,803,000, with a Master’s giving you a predicted $3,238,000 of lifetime earnings. If you do the simple math and subtract the tuition costs, there is still a considerable difference to make higher education a lucrative choice and a goal worth aspiring to.

Why do people choose vocational training?

However, you must remember that the average person takes 21 years to completely pay off their student debt. Sometimes it takes up to 30, depending on the type of loan, interest rates, and the sum, which often includes not only tuition but all your college expenses, such as books, room and board, occasional help from a paper writing service, etc. When you choose vocational training, you start earning right away, unencumbered by debt, without having to put your career on hold for 3-5 years.

Moreover, recent converging trends have led to a decline in college degree values:

  • Fast-changing job roles require life-long learning and adaptability, so a diploma is no longer a guarantee of job preparedness;
  • Online learning alternatives lead to lower interest in formal college education;
  • Ballooning tuition fees make higher education less accessible and desirable.

Is higher education on the way out?

According to Gallup, only 41% of adults ages 18 to 29 say a college education is “very important” compared to 74% in 2013, so the perceived value of higher education is definitely declining. There are several reasons behind this shift.

After decades of credentialism and degree inflation, when employers required a college degree to apply for entry-level positions that didn’t require college-level skills, this trend is finally receding. Big companies like Apple, Tesla, IBM, Hilton, Delta Airlines, and other industry leaders set precedents by no longer requiring their candidates to have a college degree to land an interview. Instead, employers place focus on mindset, abilities, skills, and experience and offer on-the-job training.

In part, this is due to a dynamic workplace with ever-changing demands. In part, this is also a response to the Great Resignation – employees across multiple sectors leaving en mass after realizing they weren’t happy with their jobs during the pandemic. This made employers shift their efforts from filtering candidates out to expanding the candidate pool to attract talent.

Does this mean that higher education is becoming obsolete? No – rather, the scales are finally getting into balance after years of unchecked “college or bust” attitude. However, tipping the scales a bit too vigorously in another direction is the narrative prevalent in media now about the complete uselessness of liberal education. This is not only far from the truth but also profoundly harmful on both individual and societal levels – and here is why.

What’s happening?

The idea behind this “degree is outdated” narrative is, on the surface, rational. The economy needs workers. Most unfilled jobs are in the health services, trade, accommodation, and food service industries. Hence, many jump to the conclusion that instead of churning out “useless degrees,” we must create more workers. For example, Michael T. Nietzel, former president of Missouri State University and expert on higher education, in his opinion piece for Forbes, states that “fast, cheap and effective” non-degree certifications offer great economic value, so the focus must be placed on vocational skills, and more high-school students should be encouraged to join workforce through short-term postsecondary programs. Yet, fortunately or not, fixing the national economy is not as simple as funneling more high schoolers toward skill training instead of college.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, there are 9.8 million job openings in the USA, but only 5.9 million unemployed workers. No matter the training, we just don’t have enough workers. Factors contributing to labor shortage include early retirements (partially due to an increase in savings), the lowest international migration levels in decades, and lack of access to childcare, leading to the lowest rates of women participation in the labor force since the 1970s (in the spring of 2020, 3.5 million moms left their jobs). Additionally, many workers who were left unemployed due to the pandemic chose to open their own businesses instead of staying unemployed: nearly 10 million new businesses were started in the last two years.

Why skill training isn’t the solution?

George D. Kuh, an expert on assessing undergraduate student learning and personal development, also warns against such short-term solutions as privileging short-term job training over long and demanding educational experiences. He points out the costs of such short-sighted quick fixes to individuals’ intellectual, personal, and social development, calling it a “catastrophic disservice.” Kuh also foresees the detrimental results it will have on the long-term vitality of the American economy and democracy since it’s likely that learners from historically underserved groups, like ethnic minorities and low-income families, would be disproportionally tracked into such short-term programs. It’s telling that in the Gallup survey cited above, women and minorities saw college education as more important than their more privileged counterparts, as it opens doors to independence and prosperity that would otherwise be inaccessible to them.

At the same time, Kuh expresses doubt that the vocal proponents of short-term training will encourage their own children to favor vocational training over degree programs – and for a reason. They know all too well that higher education is more than just a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree at the end of the program. It’s a process of cultivating intellectual habits of reading and writing, creative problem-solving, evaluation of ideas, critical thinking, and broadening perspectives that build resilience and a base for life-long learning. Incidentally, these are all the skills that, according to experts, the future workforce will value above all.

Why higher education is more than just a degree?

Skill training is valuable and essential in many professions – that’s how it was, is, and will always remain. However, higher education offers a unique set of advantages that cannot be fully replaced by vocational programs. Here are just some of them:

  1. Broad knowledge base

Higher education provides students with well-rounded knowledge that goes beyond specific skills. It cultivates critical thinking, problem-solving, and adaptability, laying the foundation for further independent intellectual growth.

  1. Holistic soft skill development

The college setting promotes growth in areas such as communication, teamwork, leadership, and cultural awareness. These qualities are vital for functioning effectively in diverse environments and are highly valued by employers.

  1. Analytical skills

Higher education fosters analytical and research skills, enabling students to approach complex problems with a critical mindset, question assumptions, be aware of cognitive biases, evaluate ideas and evidence, and draw well-informed conclusions.

  1. Adaptability

In the constantly evolving job market, careers that are in high demand today might become obsolete tomorrow. Higher education gives students transferable skills and broad knowledge bases, making them adaptable to changing circumstances and ready for new career opportunities.

  1. Innovation and creativity

Higher education usually means exposure to many different, often conflicting ideas, which fosters open-mindedness and creativity. Openness to new ideas is crucial for pushing the boundaries of knowledge and driving progress.

  1. Networking and social connections

Universities and colleges give unparalleled opportunities for students to connect with peers, faculty, industry professionals, and alums. These connections are valuable assets often related to job opportunities and career growth.

  1. Cultural and societal enrichment

Higher education exposes young people to diverse perspectives, ideas, and cultures, fostering inclusivity, promoting a deeper understanding of global issues, and preparing students for the future.

  1. Research and development

Universities play a pivotal role in studies that advance scientific understanding of the world, technology, and societal well-being. Skill training alone cannot facilitate the creation of new knowledge.

  1. In-depth specialization

Higher education gives extensive theoretical knowledge that goes beyond mastery of specific tasks. No number of badges and certificates will add up to the proficiency, coherence, and depth of understanding that higher education cultivates through experiences of critical thinking and analytical reasoning.

  1. Career opportunities

Degree inflation aside, higher education is a prerequisite for career advancement in many professions. Certain roles, including top management positions, require advanced degrees and academic credentials – for all the reasons listed above.

While short-term vocational programs are important and suited for many people, being essential for many specific job roles, they are not the magic solution to the problems of the 21st-century workforce. At the same time, higher education offers a more comprehensive and multifaceted approach to personal and intellectual development, combining theoretical knowledge, analytical skills, and specialization. Higher education prepares people for a self-sufficient, responsible, and fulfilling life by giving them the tools to navigate the ever-changing landscapes of the workforce, economy, and society.

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