Smart Educational Choices Drive Our Future

by Dr. Sheila Quirk-Bailey
Illinois Central College

If we want to give relevant advice to our children, we need to understand the facts that drive our new environment. 

Now more than ever, the post-secondary educational choices we make drive our individual and regional economic futures. These choices—regarding the type of degree to earn, a major, where to attend and the amount of debt to take on—all have a major impact on a graduate’s ability to find a job, start a family and buy a home. The world has changed. It is time to change the way we think about post-secondary credentialing in this country as well.

Ensuring economic security for your family is no longer as easy as securing a high school diploma. Neither is economic security guaranteed by obtaining any four-year degree. If we want to give relevant advice to our children and make good decisions ourselves, we need to understand the facts that drive our new environment, our options, and make smart educational choices. 

Economic Environment and Educational Credentials
During the most recent recession, workers with only a high school diploma failed to realize the level of job recovery achieved by those with college credentials. Additionally, middle and high-skills jobs are more likely than ever to be held by those with a college credential, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. 

Between January 2010 and January 2016, 11.6 million jobs were created in this country, and 99 percent of those positions went to workers with at least some education beyond high school. The bottom line is that a post-secondary credential is no longer optional. Whether it is an apprenticeship, military credential, industry credential, college certificate, associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree, everyone will need a credential post-high school to access jobs providing family-sustaining wages. 

Choosing an Educational Credential 
A recent study by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce determined that “more education is usually better, but majors matter more and that college should be less about the institution name and more about the field of study.” For example, in the healthcare industry, four-year university degrees are not required to obtain high-paid/high-skilled positions such as radiographer, dental hygienist, surgical technologist or nurse. Students in the new economy are best served by determining what career area they intend to pursue before selecting their major. This career-focused investigation often will determine that a one-year certificate or two-year degree provides career opportunities as good as those available for those with higher-level credentials—at half the time and cost. 

In light of this reality, Illinois Central College (ICC) is partnering with our regional high schools and the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council (GPEDC) to develop career pathways that allow students to explore careers and begin earning college credits while still in high school. Credential selection should be driven by an individual’s aptitudes, interests and an understanding of labor market opportunity. The key is informed choice. 

Education is always advantageous, but uninformed choice regarding the level of degree required and major selected can result in the accumulation of excess credits, higher student debt and few career prospects. Uninformed choice leaves many of our young adults in heavy debt with few job opportunities, which could be avoided through informed career choices. 

Debt Is Crippling Our Students’ Futures
The Federal Reserve reports the current student loan burden as $1.44 trillion, second only to home mortgage debt. Currently 44.2 million Americans have student loans. While the amount of student loan debt varies greatly, this debt can be avoided or greatly diminished by the choices made to obtain credentials. 

At ICC, for example, only about 10 percent of students take out loans—thanks to grants, more than 600 available scholarships, and low tuition rates. A full-time student at ICC can expect to spend around $4,500 in annual tuition and fees, while area for-profit schools and technical programs can cost as much as $16,000 a year. The first two years in tuition and fees for private and state universities run from $14,000 to $32,000. As one parent recently shared, “ICC was the best $25,000 I never spent for my child’s college education.” 

Union apprenticeships, industry and military credentials all provide high-quality, zero-debt credential options. Students can cut their college debt and use those resources to buy a car, or even make a down payment on a house. Young adults today are facing economic realities previous generations never experienced. The answer to this debt crisis is informed choice regarding financing a college education and return on investment. 

Workforce and Regional Implications
While unemployment is falling in our region, far too many residents are working multiple jobs with no benefits. At the same time, employers cannot find skilled workers to fill positions paying family-sustaining wages. As we work with regional employers, they report having to recruit workers from outside of our region to fill open positions for which our own residents remain largely unqualified. 

For a region to be economically viable, research shows that 60 percent of the adult population needs to have a credential post-high school. In the Greater Peoria area, only 40 percent of adults have post-secondary credentials. The time has come to develop a talent supply chain of credentialed adults in central Illinois to claim the jobs created by the current workforce gaps in IT, manufacturing and healthcare. Employers and ICC are working together to address the regional workforce needs and develop creative solutions, such as apprenticeships, so we can create the skills we require in our adult population and recent high school graduates. 

Making Smart Choices
The educational landscape is changing. High-quality educational credentials that lead to careers paying family-sustaining wages can be obtained through pathways other than the traditional baccalaureate degree, all without the burden of excessive student debt. ICC is building the regional workforce pipeline to match student interests and talents to regional workforce needs to increase the number of adults with high-quality, workforce-aligned credentials. Earning a credential that provides a family-sustaining wage not only changes the life of the individuals, but also that of their families. It expands our workforce and revitalizes our region’s economic vitality. 

There still is much work to be done. We hope you will join us in these alignment efforts. Working together, we can ensure our youth and underemployed adults understand how our environment has changed and are informed to make smart career and educational choices. iBi

Dr. Sheila Quirk-Bailey is president of Illinois Central College.