For some time now, school-age kids and their parents have been told that nothing less than a degree from a four-year college will land a good, well-paying job and long-lasting career in the modern economy. But that’s changing. As the cost of college zooms past the reach of all but the wealthiest families (or the students most deserving of scholarships), both employers and potential employees are questioning the role college plays in many industries.
While certain professions, such as medicine and law, still require advanced degrees, many others offer high salaries, good benefits, and satisfying jobs to those with associate degrees, training certificates, and other paths to specific, job-based knowledge — without the potentially crushing debt left from a four-year degree.
This shift in thinking is still a work in progress, though. “Having letters behind your name does not make you a better employee. It is going to take intentional and explicit work to change the perception that a four-year — or more — college degree is the singular path to career success,” says Tracy Racicot, director of adult and community services at Southern Westchester BOCES (SWBOCES). She argues that pursuing education and skills in shorter-term training programs gives young people “better informed, practical and worthy career choices.”
Just over 62% of those entering a four-year college complete their degree within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s Completing College reports released February 2022. “That means close to 40% did not complete and will most likely have debt or default on loans. Students who chose a practical alternative to a four-year college are more immediately employable. There are many jobs with pathways for those trained in the skilled medical, construction trades and technology fields,” she says.
For example, SWBOCES provides tuition-based job training and education to those over age 18 in a wide range of high-demand sectors. It has training programs in healthcare (EKG/ phlebotomy, clinical medical assistant, and more), construction (electricity, plumbing, carpentry, HVAC, welding), automotive technology, auto body repair, and computer networking technology. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Standards Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics, these jobs pay from the mid-$30,000 range to the low $80,000s in the New York region, she says.
Community colleges also offer short-term credentials, certificates, and associate degrees that prepare individuals to enter middle-skill jobs, says Teresita B. Wisell, vice president, workforce development and community education at SUNY Westchester Community College (WCC). “These jobs allow individuals to enter an industry career pathway with potential for advancement upon further education or training. In addition, community colleges are often an option for those who value the lower tuitions.”
Many adult students enroll at WCC in order to gain a skill and enter the workforce, she says. “Today, higher education doesn’t necessarily happen in a linear continuum for all people. Many individuals begin their higher education at a community college, enter the workforce and are fulfilled in a good position that offers them good pay. Some then return to higher education in order to advance in their chosen fields. In other words, a community college versus a four-year college is not an either-or choice.”
WCC offers opportunities for applied, experiential learning in its career and technical education programs, including clinical experiences and field work, as well as internship opportunities. Healthcare fields of study include phlebotomy, certified nursing assistant, registered nurse, radiology technician, respiratory care technician, and others. Other students are prepared to enter information technology positions such as help desk support, coding, and cybersecurity. “Many of our graduates enter high-demand fields that lead to the path of social mobility. Twenty-one percent of WCC students who begin their academic journey from the bottom fifth of the income quintiles end up in the top fifth later in life,” Wisell says. “WCC is ranked 21st out of two-year colleges nationwide on this measure.”
Mercy College recently hired Brian Amkraut as vice president and general manager for workforce credentialing and community impact, charging him with developing additional non-degree programs to serve its students, who are often first-generation college attendees and from underrepresented populations. He hopes to tap into current faculty expertise, such as counseling certification in crisis intervention — “for, say, law enforcement for domestic abuse,” he says. “We don’t need every oﬃcer to have a degree in psychology, but we can give training in this skill set.”
In addition, new sectors of the economy, such as renewable energy, will offer “lots of jobs,” Amkraut says. “How do we train people to find a path to successful careers in these brand-new areas? We just launched professional certifications in the cannabis industry. We are not advocating whether you should or shouldn’t be in that industry, but jobs are going to be there. It will be a multimillion-dollar industry in a short time, and some knowledge of the industry, the legal and medical issues, the history will be beneficial and may be required.”
Soulful Synergy, a consulting company that focuses on sustainability and workforce development, especially in underserved communities, offers, among other things, certification training programs and employment placement assistance, especially in the energy eﬃciency sector. Almost two-thirds of students don’t have college degrees, according to co-founder Dwayne R. Norris. The company partners with other organizations and companies, such as NYSERDA, Guidance Center of Westchester and Westhab, to craft trainings and find workers. Soulful Synergy even starts high-school kids on the path to construction jobs, teaching introductory courses on basic building and safety skills. “We know there is a need, but not always programs to match,” Norris says. Co-founder Alejandro Alvarez adds that the company’s programs help “demystify the process. We help the community understand, if they learn certain skills, they can command what they want in a career.”
The trades have always been a strong career choice, and William Mascetta, president of Transit Construction Corp. in Yonkers, argues that most trades today require advanced knowledge as precise as other professions. “It’s not a choice of college versus high school degree. I look at it as choice of a profession where the pathway to success requires an education post-high school but in a different sort of setting,” he says. Construction equipment used today is way beyond just “moving the levers. The machine is guided by GPS satellites and computer programming. We are talking high tech here. Sure, digging a ditch and putting a pipe in the ground hasn’t changed much in a century, but how you do it has radically changed.”
With computers, GPS and artificial intelligence, “the common laborer is highly skilled because it’s all done with tech features, it’s computerized, and they are all trained to do this. We are talking a whole different paradigm for what the perception might be, seeing what someone in a hard hat and boots is doing,” he says.
And with that high-tech training come high-end salaries, some in the six figures. “Trust me, I know,” he laughs, “because I sign the checks.”