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Down With the Bachelor’s Degree!

For years, America’s higher ed discussion has focused on encouraging more students to earn bachelor’s and associate’s degrees. But students with vocational certificates in fields like IT often earn more money than many of their peers with traditional degrees. The big disadvantage of certificates, though, is that it’s much more difficult to get financial aid. The NYT reports:

Federal financial aid goes overwhelmingly to students in traditional degree programs, while little goes to the many students in noncredit certificate programs who may need it more.

Students and educators alike say the unavailability of financial aid prevents many from even entering these programs, which not only bolster students’ employability but, economists say, America’s overall competitiveness.

At first glance, it would seem reasonable to expand student loans for these programs, but in the long run it could spell disaster. Do we really want promising vocational programs adopting the funding model that has made college unaffordable and led to $1 trillion in total student debt?

In contrast to traditional degrees, many of these certificates are already affordable for most people. One college surveyed by the NYT offers its IT courses for anywhere from $800 to $4,000, well below the cost of the average bachelor’s degree. A flood of student loans could change that: The introduction of federal subsidies caused tuition at universities to spike (by 75 percent, according to some estimates), and certificate programs would likely see a similar effect. Federal aid could ruin an element of the education market that seems to be performing well on its own.

Rather than making vocational education more like higher ed, traditional colleges should be taking their cues from these successful certificate programs.

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