College Graduates Enjoy Bigger Career Networks, But Other Students Can Catch Up

Higher ed isn’t for everyone and a growing number of pathways programs is helping non-degree holders match the advantages of a degree

An apprentice carpenter at work in a factory. Image Credit: Getty Images

College pays. Graduates with four-year degrees earn more and are unemployed less over their lifetime than those without degrees. College enthusiasts and colleges promote these benefits and tout “college for all,” which aspires for all students to move from elementary to high school to college, then a satisfying career and a rewarding life.

Adult success, however, doesn’t require young people to climb aboard the “college for all” conveyor belt. That’s fortunate because only just more than 35% of Americans over the age of 25 hold a college degree, up from less than 25% a generation ago.

For the non-college-bound, there have always been vocational and technical schools and other occupational training options. But for the past decade, as the idea grew that college isn’t right for everyone, schools and entrepreneurs have been creating new models to put students on the path to careers after high school or community college. These so-called pathways programs connect students with employers in innovative ways so the students can develop the knowledge, skills and networks to get jobs, build careers and pursue opportunities without the huge cost and time commitment of college. 

Alternatives to college are increasingly popular these days. Television host and narrator Mike Rowe talks up vo-tech skills in videos and his foundation awards scholarships to trainees in blue-collar jobs. Skills USA, the nonprofit that promotes technical education and runs state and national competitions, reports record membership numbers. And venture capitalist Peter Thiel hands out $100,000 to a couple of dozen college students each year if they drop out of college to launch a startup, do research or embark on some other project. 

No Degree, Smaller Networks

Developing a network is especially important for students who are not college-bound. The networks of college and non-college graduates were once roughly the same in size. But that’s changed, and today the larger networks of college graduates help explain their greater career success and higher satisfaction outside of work. In 1990, 64% of people with college degrees had at least five close friends, while nearly as many—59%—of non-degree holders also did. Both groups now report having fewer friends, according to the 2021 American Community Life Survey, but 47% of degree holders reported strong ties with at least five family members or friends, while only 34% of non-degree holders did.

This pattern is similar for other measures of social networks. Some 24% of those without degrees did not have “someone you have talked to about an important matter within the past six months,” while only 9% of those with degrees were in the same situation. On a question that combines three measures (“there are people you can talk to, …turn to, …feel close to”), 66% of college graduates reported a high level of support on all three levels, while only 52% of those without degrees did.

The two groups also make close friends in different places. Degree holders made them more often in their or their spouse’s workplace, by 62% to 47%. Non-degree holders rely more on their neighborhoods for finding friends, by 40% to 29%. And degree holders can count on more informal relationships, or “weak ties.” Some 78% boast friends they meet in settings such as restaurants and bars, compared with 62% of non-degree holders, and 6 in 10 have activity-based friends they meet through hobbies or team sports vs. 4 in 10 for non-college graduates.

The Importance of ‘Weak Ties’

The bad news for non-college graduates is that most Americans find jobs through weak ties rather than strong ties. “Strong ties provide bonds, but weak ties [are]…bridges …provid[ing] more efficient access to new information,” explains organizational psychologist and author Adam Grant. “Our strong ties tend to travel in the same social circles and know of the same opportunities as we do. Weak ties are more likely to open access to a different network, facilitating the discovery of original leads.”

Strong ties are also important for finding better jobs, of course. Think of these two types of relationships—“bonding” and “bridging” social capital—as complementary. Individuals develop bonding capital when they interact with close friends and family members. Individuals develop bridging capital when they interact with less familiar people. Bonding social capital is for “getting by” and bridging social capital is for “getting ahead,” says social scientist Xavier de Souza Briggs. 

Programs that follow the pathways model can go a long way toward expanding the networks of non-degree holders and putting them on a solid career path. There are many ways to do this: apprenticeships and internships, technical education, dual enrollment in high school and postsecondary programs, job placement and training, career academies focused on individual occupations, boot camps for learning specialized knowledge and skills, student services such as counseling, and income-share agreements that have students paying tuition after getting a good job.

Traditional high school vo-tech programs may have offered some of these options, but they differed in one significant way: They often assigned students to different tracks and occupational training based on race, ethnicity or social class. This meant placing low-income or minority students in low-level academic classes or vocational training and middle- and upper-class white students in college preparatory classes. This isn’t the case with the pathways approach.

Pathways to Careers

States such as California, Colorado, Delaware, Indiana and Tennessee are taking these various options and fashioning them into full-time educational and career-training programs. The Pathways to Prosperity Network, P-Tech Schools, the Linked Learning Alliance and other national organizations are doing the same thing.

The goal of these programs is to ensure that every young person—regardless of background or current situation—has multiple pathways to jobs and careers that will help them flourish as adults. And they provide the two ingredients young people need to pursue opportunities: knowledge and networks or what they know and who they know. 

What goes into a pathways initiative? The successful ones boast four features that can be duplicated by almost any state or community:

Credentials that have value: Programs must offer a curriculum linked to labor-market needs and award recognized credentials that lead to a decent income. For example, Building Futures, a Rhode Island apprenticeship program, works with 29 public and private organizations. It awards nationally recognized credentials in several fields and works to place students in jobs with an automatic step-by-step progression to higher wages.

Formal written agreements: These compacts between a program and each organization and individual it works with—such as employers, trade associations, the United Way and other local foundations—outline everyone’s responsibilities. New Orleans’ YouthForce NOLA maintains compacts with its 17 funders, 12 steering committee members, dozens of student coaches and 11 local leaders who serve as board members. 

A well-staffed corps of advisers: Counselors and advisers are crucial for helping young people make informed choices. In elementary and middle schools, the advisers arrange for speakers and field trips, while in high schools they focus on internships and job placements. The Corporate Work Study Program at Cristo Rey, a national network of 38 Catholic high schools enrolling 12,300 students, assigns students to entry-level jobs for five days a month, using more than 3,400 employers. 

Support from state and local policymakers: The schools, local civic partners and entrepreneurs starting these programs often must navigate and skillfully evade the barriers put up by conventional K-12 and postsecondary schools and training regimes. Dropping these restrictions, can help pave the way for a program’s success. Some examples: States often require a certain number of credits in specific subjects to graduate from high school, which may prevent students from enrolling in pathways programs.

States often set overly strict standards for teachers, and union contracts add more rules, making it difficult for training programs to hire experts in vo-tech subjects who are also certified teachers. Many state and federal programs focus on specific categories, such as disadvantaged, low-income or bilingual students, rather than serving all good candidates for a program. Similarly, workforce training is often directed to unemployed workers and can’t include K-12 or postsecondary students.

A New Opportunity Agenda

This pathways model offers students many avenues and credentials for jobs that employers must fill. College becomes one among many valuable pathways to jobs and opportunity. This principle—more options are better for students and society—is encouraging some colleges to “unbundle” the four-year degree into building blocks, or stackable credentials, that are earned while working and, as a career progresses, lead to an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America has done just that.

Pathways also provides young people with social and psychological benefits. It gives them an occupational identity, which helps them learn how to achieve goals. It teaches them what it means to be a worker with abilities and value—an important foundation for adult success. And, of course, it offers faster and cheaper routes to jobs and careers than does a conventional postsecondary education. Finally, pathways programs cultivate the connections and bonds—the strong ties and weak ties—crucial to finding a job, and build on the dynamism and innovation that local initiatives and the institutions of civil society nurture.

Editor’s note: Some of the organizations mentioned in this article receive financial support from the Walton Family Foundation, where Manno is senior adviser for the education program.

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