“College for all” has become a rallying cry for progressive lawmakers in the last several years. In 2015 Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a College for All Act that would eliminate undergraduate tuition at public universities, while Senator Tammy Baldwin and Representative Bobby Scott introduced the America’s College Promise Act, which would make all community and technical colleges free to eligible students. There’s an increasing push to see a four-year college degree as a basic requirement for economic success, and accessible higher education as a tool to reduce income inequality. But a new study has found that college for all might not be a cure-all.

Researchers Dan Gitterman, Jeremy Moulton, Dillan Bono-Lunn, and Laura Chrisco argue that “educators and policymakers should consider ‘some college’ as a viable pathway to future labor market success.”[1] ‘Some college’ is an official Census designation that refers to students who have completed certificates, students who are currently enrolled in post-secondary education, and people who have acquired credits but not completed a degree. In looking at employment and wage data by education level, the researchers found something striking: a significant proportion of people who have completed ‘some college’ earn more than the median bachelor’s degree holder.

The data showed a wide range of earnings both within and across education levels. For example, only 5 to 12 percent of people with less than a high school degree earn more than the median college graduate; that numbers shoots up to 40 percent for people holding a certificate in skilled manufacturing.[2] Certificate holders in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields were also relatively strong earners; certificate holders in health, on the other hand, mostly fell slightly below the median high school graduate.

According to the study, “prospective students must increasingly consider the labor market returns to education against the debt their earnings must service.” In other words, younger generations have a greater need to take their future earning potential into account when deciding on their post-secondary education. This is as true for a student choosing a bachelor’s degree as it is for one choosing a certificate or vocational program.


Highest level of educational attainment 

Nearly one-third of Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 have completed “some college,” i.e. more than a high school degree but less than a bachelor’s.[3] That’s a huge segment of the population that’s getting left out by the “college for all” conversation.  

“Although setting high standards of ‘college for all’ is laudable, there are some unintended consequences, such as demoting the vocational career path.” 

Gitterman et al. caution against the narrow rhetoric surrounding the “college for all” push. Low-income students are finding themselves taking on more debt to cover education costs, or getting priced out of college altogether. At the same time, they are potentially unaware of less expensive educational and skill development options that could deliver comparable returns. Educators and lawmakers shouldn’t continue exclusively pushing students towards increasingly unaffordable degrees.

[1] Daniel P. Gitterman, Jeremy G. Moulton, Dillan Bono-Lunn, and Laura Chrisco. (2015.) Can “Some College” Help Reduce Future Earnings Inequality?, Peabody Journal of Education, 90:5, 636-658. Available at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0161956X.2015.1087774

[2] See note 1

[3] Ibid