The Goldilocks Challenge: Getting Postsecondary Education Advice Just Right

By Janet Wall

You are a career practitioner helping people in career exploration or transition to decide whether they should obtain postsecondary education, what they might major in, where they should go to get that education, how much it will cost, and what salaries they are likely to command. You may have sung the same refrain as many others that having a college education is an important goal unto itself, and it will provide a person a secure and solid future. Go to college at any cost and it will pay off. Is that really the best advice?


Generally Accepted Advantages of College Attainment

A college education has its advantages. It gives a person more status and prestige; it opens up more job opportunities; makes you more attractive to employers; validates a person’s persistence and ability to reach a goal; and, on average, commands a higher salary as compared to those who do not have a college education.

Specific research findings about postsecondary education include the following:

  • The unemployment rate for college graduates is far lower than for those with a high school diploma. (BLS). The same trend is true when one considers underemployment. (The College Advantage)

  • On average, higher education levels equate to higher the lifetime earnings. For example a high school diploma graduate is expected to earn about $1.3M, a person with some college and no degree, $1.5M, an Associate’s degree earner, $1.7M, while a bachelor’s recipient will earn about $2.3M. (The College Payoff)

  • Claims are made that 22 million new college degrees at the Associate’s or above are needed and that nearly 5 million more workers with at least postsecondary certificates will be required. (Projection of Jobs Through 2018)


Situations That Might Give You Pause

  • Twenty one of the top 25 occupations with the most job openings do not require a postsecondary degree. (Career OneStop)

  • A majority of new jobs in the future (> 70%) will be found in occupations that can typically be entered without a 4-year college degree or more. Short to long term on the job training will be valued (Figure 1).

 New Jobs by Occupation Assigned to Education Categories

Figure 1. New Jobs by Occupations Assigned to Education Categories, 2010-2020, Bureau of Labor Statistics


  • About 5M college educated individuals are in jobs that do not require even a high school diploma. (Center for College Affordability and Productivity)

  • Many individuals who do not have a college degree are earning more than college graduates in certain fields. (The College Payoff)

  • Not all majors are equal. Choice of major substantially affects employment prospects and earnings.The salary payoff for majors in engineering, technology and the hard sciences is much greater that the social sciences, almost double by mid-career. (What's It Worth)

  • Majors that link to occupations and jobs are more likely to result in employment and lower unemployment rates overall. For example healthcare, education, and technical areas have lower unemployment rates and are less affected by economic downturns. (Hard Times)

  • The improved wage payoff for some college majors is not seen until earning the Master’s degree. Biology is an example where the earning differential increases substantially when the Master’s degree is secured. (What's It Worth)

  • Where you get your college degree matters. In some cases, the cost of tuition and loss of salary while attending school will not reap benefits equal to the investment. (Payscale College Salary Report)

  • College graduation rates average around 53%, but differ widely by institution. Where a person attends postsecondary education may affect the individual’s completion rate. (College Completion) (College Scorecard)

  • Student loan debt has reached more than $1 trillion with the average individual debt for a 4-year degree earner exceeding $25K with 10% of graduates owing more than $54K. (The Student Debt Crisis)


What’s Trending Today


Differential Tuition. Some individuals feel that persons majoring in the hard sciences should be encouraged to complete college degrees through lower tuition rates. (Freakonomics). Others feel that if you are in a major that will earn more, the tuition should be higher. (Univeristies Charging More Tuition for Harder Majors)


MOOCS. Massive Open Online Courses are gaining momentum in higher education discussions primarily for the potential of reducing college costs while providing low cost college courses.


ROI. Discussions are being held by parents, counselors, students, and higher education officials regarding the return on investment (ROI) for attending college, suggesting that the economic outlay may not be a good investment given the economic benefits expected.


The Employment – Higher Education Mismatch. In the United States, only 44 % of young people felt that their postsecondary education improved their employment possibilities. For college graduates, the number is 55%, not a resounding salute to postsecondary education institutions. While 87% of postsecondary education providers felt that they were adequately preparing students for the workforce, only 49% of employers agreed -- a difference of 38%! (Education to Employment; note, this is a large pdf)


Career Practitioners Getting It Just Right

Making good career and education decisions is an intricate dance between personal desires versus economic realities. The competent career practitioner advising individuals on postsecondary education needs to:

    • stay alert to changing employment opportunities by participating in professional development opportunities focusing on labor market information and economic conditions, and by following the work of institutions such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics;

    • track trends in higher education, like tuition, graduation rates, and subsequent employment, and inject that information to the conversation when working with clients;

    • pledge that the advice provided to students and clients is sufficiently comprehensive for making the most informed career decision with the latest and best data and research – not too much, not too little, but just right.


Janet WallDr. Janet Wall, CDFI, MCDP, is a career development practitioner, speaker, and course developer with interests in assessment, vocational interests, abilities, technology and writing. She is the founder of www.CEUonestop.com, an NBCC approved continuing education provider. The latest course, Realistic Career Decision Making: It’s Not Just About Passion, is based on some of the information in this article and offers CEU clock hours for your certifications. She is author of several books, co-author of the Ability Explorer, and is recipient of NCDA’s Merit Award and the American Counseling Association’s Government Relations Award. Look for her presentation on informed career decision making at the upcoming Boston NCDA Career Development conference. You can reach Dr. Wall at careerfacilitator@janetwall.net.

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Janat Wall   on Wednesday 05/01/2013 at 06:03 PM

Looking forward to your comments.

Bob Tyra   on Thursday 05/02/2013 at 12:27 AM

I think that this article is spot on. If I could add one more "consideration," I'd look at a serious discussion of attaining a technical degree as a possible first step/springboard to more advanced levels of education/employment.

Patricia Van Haste   on Thursday 05/02/2013 at 09:10 AM

In the days when I ran a college research and career center in a public high school,it was evident that parents did not want to heard anything about any type of post secondary education that did not lead to a 4 year degree. Perhaps there is hope that with this nation-wide recession, more attention can and will be paid to other pathways, especially important for non traditional learners

Patrick Leggett   on Thursday 05/02/2013 at 10:04 AM

Excellent. Spot on information to help readjust preconceived notions about Post Secondary Training and workforce.

Deb Crapes   on Thursday 05/02/2013 at 10:27 AM

Thank you for your informative article. It couldn't have arrived at a better time for me. I will definitely be sharing it with my colleagues.

Phil Jarvis   on Thursday 05/02/2013 at 12:13 PM

This excellent article confronts the myths and well-intentioned misinformation career-seekers receive from parents, educations, indeed most adults. It's not about discouraging our clients' passions and dreams. It's about helping them make informed decisions about all learning pathways to the career trajectory and life they want to live.

Janet Wall   on Thursday 05/02/2013 at 12:53 PM

Great comments! Keep them coming! I appreciate your perceptions.

Elizabeth Witt   on Thursday 05/02/2013 at 02:06 PM

So much is changing in education and employment. It seems our educational system, particularly K-12, stays about twenty years behind. See this article for more discussion on this topic.

Sidney B. Gilman   on Friday 05/03/2013 at 01:06 PM

Right On!!
I'm a retired pharmacist.
I realized what you are writing is true when I first hand, needed to hire many certified pharmacy technicians way back in the '90's.
I invested my retirement savings in a now nationwide company which trains certified healthcare paraprofessionals.
It's called Condensed Curriculum International.

Maggie McCormick   on Friday 05/03/2013 at 09:51 PM

Excellent article! I really enjoyed reading it, and I think it presents a very balanced view.

Stephen Williams   on Saturday 05/04/2013 at 12:53 PM

I wholeheartedly disagree with the article.

This is not the type of dinner-table discussion that is taking place in educated homes. Children are not being told that many occupations will not require college degrees. This advice is at best classist. The well-off and the true middle class will not take this advice even if it is offered. Only those without education will explore this, and then it becomes an out, an excuse.

Bad counseling and poor economic advice for the future.

Janet Wall   on Saturday 05/04/2013 at 01:06 PM

Stephen. The comments in the article are research based. It's difficult to accept some of them, but the data come from well respected studies.

I wrote the article to get people thinking and reacting. I would like to know what is particularly troubling to you and why you think so.

Tracy DiFilippis   on Saturday 05/04/2013 at 09:39 PM

Thanks for helping to dispel the myth! This article rings true with all the research I have done and what I experience in the field. As practitioners we are ethically responsibly to guide others presenting a variety of information, educating others in how to access, and facilitating process forward. The whole idea is: 'informed and considered career decisions'. Labor market information is a critical factor in the equation of ROI of a 4-year degree +. DO YOUR HOMEWORK UP FRONT! Great bullets and pie chart!!

disappointed grad   on Monday 05/06/2013 at 01:54 PM

This article is dead on!! If i only knew this back in 98 when i enrolled in college i wouldn't be in so much debt! I wouldn't have gone to an expensive 4 yr Jesuit college! I wouldn't have majored in a social science! I wouldn't have gone back to that same college for my Master's degree! I wouldn't have done alot of things!!! I have a passion for helping youth so i followed my passion and got my BA and MA in psychology and counseling. Who knew that i was the ONLY person who had that passion?? Clearly the govt doesn't have the same passion because every time they do a budget cut, foster and probation kids suffer and so does my job security! I have friends who never stepped foot on a college campus who work in the pharmaceutical field, the IT community and who do trades like plumbing and cosmetology. These friends are making upwards of 70,000 or more, living comfortably and are in no debt from student loans. I worked my butt off to get my BA and MA degrees by the time i was 24 and it just feels like i did it for NOTHING!!! I was unemployed for 2 years because of budget cuts. I couldn't find a job because employers were constantly telling me i was overqualified or that they couldn't hire me because they did not pay what a Master's degree was worth. I appreciate the fact that someone is now putting the truth out there and letting everyone know what a HOAX a college education is!

Rich Feller   on Friday 05/10/2013 at 09:44 AM

Reading comments on CC articles helps us track trends and tap the pulse of our colleagues. Janet is one of the first to document such important data to stimulate strong debate and reflection on a key issue. Brilliant work (regardless of one's bias or reaction) and I request those with rebuttal or different experiences contact me to develop a series on the topic and create a potential session at next year's national conference.
Janet's work elevates the discussion so let's take it public with the help of those with other views. Thanks colleagues...Rich Feller, NCDA President 12-13

Jay Gretsuk   on Friday 05/10/2013 at 09:50 AM

Those of us from CTE backgrounds have known it to be true that the 4-year degree is not a panacea. Especially in light of the economic downturn that has renedered many 4 year degree graduates unemployable.

One caveat though as this reality is filtered and applied overlapping the "y-year degree or bust" mentality of educrats for the last 100 years.

As this information is given to the public; students and parents alike, we must be very clear that we are not BASHING 4 year degrees, we are only making one well aware of the options to gain a productive career. The last thing we need is all the disenfranchised students and families of the economically disadvataged use this as a reason to become even LESS engaged in the path building for their future. The opposite is needed. This is a huge opportunity to engage the unengaged.

If we are going to ever rebuild our manufacturing base and recreate all those lost so-called "middle class" careers this is absolutely the most critical time in education. Many of those careers have earning potential far exceeding what I am doing as a 20 year educator with two plus degrees.

This article is as spot on now as it would have been 20 years ago.

Janet Wall   on Friday 05/10/2013 at 11:46 AM

I think the idea of focusing on these issues at next year's conference is a good one.
It would be good to have people like Carnavale from Georgetown, Dixie Sommers from BLS, Vedder from the College Affordability Project, the Pathways to Prosperity people, Sawhill from the Brooking Insitution who recently released a report indicating college for all is not a great idea, and others.
As career development professionals we need to know the big picture when we help people in their career development and we need to convey the reality to our students and clients.

Niel Carey   on Thursday 05/16/2013 at 09:39 AM

Janet, Thanks for an informative and thought-provoking article that will be very useful for career professionals! It will be especially useful for educators and counselors at the secondary level who work with students and parents in becoming informed to make important decisions and plans for further educatin and careers.

Damona Sain   on Wednesday 05/22/2013 at 06:50 PM

I have mixed feelings about this. I do think there is a huge gulf between the cost of a college education and the ROI. However, one important criteria is missing--how well is anyone--college grad or non college grad--schooled in modern job search techniques? The myth is really that higher ed degrees don't guarantee a job--anymore than a technical one does. Using online job boards are only one way to locate jobs--but also place applicants in a huge competitive pool. And, how well do traditional age college students know what career path they want to undertake anyway? That education is sorely lacking. This should start in high school with direct exposure to work environments, to accurate videos of the same if live exposure is unavailable. There needs to be a more dynamic approach to understanding the wide variety of both careers and work environments. There should be senior level people in a variety of careers willing to mentor HS students well before college. There should be ways to leverage social media outlets to reach the younger age group about careers, work environments, and better job search techniques from their employed slightly older peers. How can we motivate young people to learn about the world of work and know how important this learning is to their future? How much "grit" and determination do they have (this correlates with what is needed to complete almost anything important, according to Angela Duckworth, PhD). What is their level of curiosity about the world around them? What are their values and what role do they play in career decision-making? Statistics don't give us the whole picture, for sure.

Janet Wall   on Wednesday 05/22/2013 at 07:20 PM

Demona, I have mixed feelings like you.

But as career development professionals, WE are the ones with the information and we need to get it out there.

I recently read a report where 9th grade students get their career advice mostly from mothers. Maybe they should be part of our target audience.

Your suggestions are very much on point and we, as members of NCDA, need to create and promote solutions. Isn't that our mission?

Dr. Lisa Raufman    on Friday 05/31/2013 at 03:40 AM

Excellent resources for all of us career counselors to use. thank you for documenting research that all of us should review regularly. I am a community college counselor; two year degree careers are thriving AND we have students with bachelors degrees returning to get marketable degrees. I agree that we need to walk a fine line between helping clients find their passion and their true calling with helping them to recognize many statistical possibilities and alternatives. Even if we provide them with "the facts" (who is actually getting the jobs", there is a readiness factor (both for the parents who want their child to get a University degree from the best college and for the client who may be in denial until several years of not finding a job.) One additional resource for people comes from the HR Policy Association's website: www.jobipedia.org where they have Fortune 500 company HR reps respond to questions about career planning, resume writing, networking, interview techniques, etc. I really believe that many liberal arts graduates could be in better career paths if they went to career counselors or useful websites for job search advice.

Jim Peacock   on Wednesday 07/02/2014 at 07:50 AM

This is a soapbox topic for me. We need to honor ALL jobs and ALL career pathways and not be seduced by the college degree choice.

Our country is in need of trades / crafts people and many other skilled occupations. One pathway is not 'better' than the other, we need to respect all jobs.

This is the theme of my most recent newsletter if you are interested.

Molly McDaniel   on Wednesday 07/02/2014 at 09:40 AM

Hi Janet,

Thank you for sharing this article. The research you reference is really interesting. The McKinsey study is an interesting read.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.