Rethink Education

How America’s newest elected leaders can fix its broken higher ed system

Opinion: A redesigned postsecondary education system would give high school graduates the opportunity to choose between a more traditional college pathway and skills-based training and education

2022 was an election year in which voters seemed most interested in the economy, crime, and abortion. Higher education, on the other hand, was barely a blip on the radar of either candidates or voters in the 2022 midterms. The campaign websites for both the winner and loser of Texas’ gubernatorial race, for example, hardly mentioned it, and neither candidate in the Georgia runoff made it much of a policy priority.

Euan Blair, co-founder & CEO, Multiverse (Photo: Multiverse)

As many have argued from both sides of the aisle, even splashy higher ed announcements like President Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan fail to address the root causes of inequitable access to the levers of economic mobility. Indeed, if voters and policymakers can agree on anything, it might just be that the current system is broken, and the current solutions aren’t cutting it. But there’s little agreement on what a better system should actually look like. 

At a time of unprecedented skepticism around the value of higher education, ignoring the future of postsecondary learning is a missed opportunity for policymakers. 

The new class of governors and legislators has a chance to address a much more fundamental question: What would a new system of American higher education look like if you could build it from the ground up, and make it more efficient, effective, and rewarding to individuals and employers? 

Here are three core principles that state and federal leaders can start with, if they want to make good on the promise of expanding access to economic opportunity.

It wouldn’t be all about four-year degrees. Over the past half-century, the four-year college degree has emerged as America’s prime signal of job readiness. The result is a toxic combination of underemployment and over-credentialing: 41% of recent college graduates and a third of all college graduates hold jobs that don’t require a college degree, while a growing number of positions that didn’t formerly require degrees at all now do.

The consequence is that millions of college graduates find themselves employed in jobs that don’t make use of their skills, while the millions of workers who are skilled through alternative routes find their efforts to move up the career ladder blocked by calcified degree requirements. This is especially true for Black and Hispanic Americans, who are disproportionately less likely to hold bachelor’s degrees.

Fortunately, a growing number of employers are working to tear the paper ceiling and embrace the idea that just because you don’t have a B.A. doesn’t mean you can’t do the job. A redesigned postsecondary education system would follow their lead and give those leaving high school the opportunity to choose between a more traditional college pathway and skills-based training and education — while also encouraging employers to hire workers based on skills, not pedigree.

It would have a  clearer return-on-investment for students — and remove risk when possible. Perhaps the most disheartening feature of the current U.S. system of higher education is the expense. About one in seven Americans has outstanding student loans. The total,  $1.75 trillion, is an amount greater than vehicle debt and credit card debt and prevents many graduates from buying homes, starting their own businesses, or planning for retirement. 

But the cost of college is only half of the equation. The other half is the money not earned by not working (or not working full time) during studies. This opportunity cost is getting higher as wages for frontline jobs go up: if students can earn $25 an hour at Target without a degree, the overall cost of the degree is higher. And the wages students will need post-college will also need to be higher in order to have a positive return on investment.

A reformed system of higher education should enable learning while earning, in part by incentivizing businesses to invest in programs that combine employment and education. The incentives are already there for employers: effective employer-provided training reduces turnover — which can cost companies an average of $15,000 per lost employee — train hard-to-find mid-career employees and future company leaders, and support the career aspirations of their employees. It’s also becoming a competitive differentiator for employees themselves. 

The connections between education and work would become tighter. Connecting education and employment more directly, through a range of models including cooperative education and apprenticeships, allow students to gain real-world experience while they learn. 

These learn-and-earn models have already shown value to both students and employers: apprenticeships enable employers to recruit and develop a highly skilled and diverse workforce that will benefit their bottom line. Apprentices, meanwhile, get targeted, hands-on training that leads directly to employment. In the U.S., more than 90% of people who complete industry-vetted Registered Apprenticeships stay with their company. And the money is good — completers start out with average salaries of about $77,000, compared to an average of closer to $50,000 for college graduates. 

Crucially, this tighter connection is also something college students themselves want. A recent survey conducted by my company, Multiverse, found the most commonly cited shortcoming of higher ed was a lack of a clear idea of what a job actually involves. 62% of respondents said it was workforce experience that helped them prepare for their careers, rather than college.

In short, apprenticeship models remove the opportunity costs of attending college because working, earning, and learning are combined. While many people still associate them with the building and construction trades, tech apprenticeships are showing promise as a way to improve career prospects and salaries for completers — while also connecting the tech industry to more diverse sources of talent.

Perhaps the reason that candidates and voters aren’t talking about higher education is precisely because the current system is so broken that we only have the patience for temporary relief like student debt forgiveness.

But a new class of legislators means an opportunity for fresh thinking. And a new system of postsecondary education and training, rebuilt to work better for individuals and employers alike that would give campaigners and voters something to talk about.

Euan Blair is co-founder and CEO of Multiverse.