College Degrees No Longer Required For Good Middle Class Jobs

college degree not required jobs

By Jessica Stillman

It's a scary world out there for young people looking to start their careers, and this has led to plenty of college education panic. Don't have a degree, say a host of hyperventilating pundits and extremely anxious parents, and you'll almost certainly be consigned to low-paid wage slavery and a stunted life. Weep, weep.

And while the data certainly show a large and growing gap between the earnings of those with a four-year degree and those without, and no one would argue with your worthy high school guidance counselor's advice that it's generally a good idea to go to college, all this hand-wringing can have the side effect of suggesting ALL IS LOST if somehow getting a bachelor's degree failed to work out for you.

Not so, says a recent study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce and Civic Enterprises. The research found that despite the obvious erosion of many traditional routes to middle-class earnings for non-graduates (nope, I wouldn't bet on that factory re-opening in town), there are still 29 million jobs in America that pay middle-class wages (defined here as between $35,000 and $75,000 annually) but don't require a bachelor's degree. Forty percent of those pay more than $50,000 a year. (For New Yorkers and inveterate high achievers, $50,000 might not sound like a lot, but it beats the U.S. median.)

While in the past, blue-collar gigs were the route to the middle class for non-graduates, this study reveals that most of today's jobs for non-grads are now in service sectors like healthcare or white-collar office jobs.

So how do you find your way to one of these reasonably decent jobs if you missed the boat on college? The research suggests getting one of these gigs still takes some effort, with the center suggesting five paths to this sort of steady employment:

  • Associate's degrees. Half of associate's degrees are related to career-oriented fields, such as nursing, business and information technology.

  • Postsecondary certificates have eclipsed associate's and master's degrees as the second most common post-secondary award after the bachelor's degree-about 1 million are awarded each year.

  • Registered apprenticeships. Nine out of 10 apprentices are men and more than half of apprenticeships are in construction.

  • Industry-based certifications such as Microsoft, Cisco, and CompTIA certifications are test-based postsecondary credentials awarded by employers.

  • Employer-based training represents the largest pathway at $454 billion of spending.

Of course, while it's great to get some counterweight to the general cultural gloom hanging over those who fail to make it out of a four-year college program, the authors of the study don't think enough is being done to help those who need to find a non-college route to a good job.

"Compared to other advanced economies, the United States under-invests in sub-baccalaureate, career and technical education," said Anthony P. Carnevale, the Center's Director and the report's lead author.

What do you think? Can you get just as good of a job even if you don't go to college?

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London. She writes a daily column for and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch and GigaOM.

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