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Chapter 5

Non-Traditional Education

Across industry lines, formal education is being supplemented, or sometimes supplanted, with experience-based learning.

Students once were encouraged to focus on their studies and not distract themselves with extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, internships, or externships. Many students are now taking on part-time jobs and internships to help pay for college.

As noted previously, students graduating with debt owe an average of $24,520 by the end of their college education. But with minimum wage not keeping pace with college tuition, a student today would have to work nearly 1,000 hours per year to graduate without debt.

There is also another reason for a shift in the single-focus perspective: today, a student who has graduated without gaining out-of-the-classroom experience is virtually unhirable. As a result, colleges are placing an emphasis on experiential education—encouraging internships, co-ops, and service learning projects prior to graduation.

Colorado’s newly-formed Business Experiential Learning Commission, chaired by Noel Ginsburg, seeks to develop and implement a systemic solution for integrated work-based education and training.

We need to rethink the way that we direct young people. Instead of pushing them all to four-year colleges, we should encourage them to consider apprenticeships and other experiences in the trades.

Noel Ginsburg, CEO, Intertech Plastics

But in today’s competitive landscape, some employers say that college degrees have become so ubiquitous as to be compulsory for even the most entry-level jobs. In fact, some employers are encouraging students to go back and obtain four-year degrees before they can advance in their careers—even if they are already performing well in their current roles without degrees.

Employers’ preference for bachelor’s degrees may come from being spoiled by Colorado’s highly-educated labor pool. 37.8 percent of Colorado’s population over age 25 has a bachelor’s degree (or higher)—ranking 2nd highest in the nation.

But this isn’t necessarily an example where raising the bar is a good thing. There are all sorts of societal stigmas around not going to college, even though skilled trade workers can make upwards of $80,000 per year.

We’ve dug ourselves into a college-or-nothing hole.

Ellen Golombek, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Labor and Employment

While the education system does a good job equipping students with theory and subject matter expertise, some employers say that there is a gap when it comes to using that theory for practical applications. These employers want workers with experience more than they want graduates who are still “green.”

“Badging” certification programs have sprung up across the U.S. as a way to help workers become more competitive in the job market without obtaining formal degrees. These programs provide classroom work plus experiential learning, and are a great alternative to going back to campus full-time. In fact, many certification programs are tailored for people who don’t fit the traditional college-age residential student profile, and are frequently delivered remotely.

Colorado’s plethora of startups has also provided a training ground for workers who don’t necessarily fit traditional models. Many startups are run by Millennials who don’t follow traditional hiring practices, making room for workers who don’t fit the conventional models or have typical degrees.

Overall, many employers say there is strong and growing demand for people who don’t go to college, and there will continue to be jobs that don’t require a college degree—particularly in customer service fields. Hiring overqualified college graduates for those types of jobs will only increase turnover as the economy improves and workers find better matches for their skill sets.