Illinois’ college-first approach isn’t working

Illinois’ college-first approach isn’t working

Many people still view a college degree as a requirement into the workforce and toward future prosperity. The data beg to differ.

In Illinois and nationwide, a college degree is considered a universal pathway out of poverty into prosperity. We have adopted a college-first focus, which reflects in our K-12 educational practices.

Unfortunately, that has failed to produce the prosperity it promises. Many college graduates don’t end up in careers related to what they studied. Instead, they just end up burdened by massive amounts of needless student loan debt.

Two useful metrics for examining the value of a four-year degree are return on investment, the economic benefit relative to cost, and underemployment, the percentage of those with only a bachelor’s degree “working in jobs that do not require a degree or make meaningful use of college-level skills.”

According to the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, Illinois has the worst ROI for public undergraduate programs in the Midwest. It also has the highest share of undergraduate programs with a negative ROI, 29.9%, in the Midwest. Almost 1 in every 3 four-year public undergraduate programs in Illinois will do more harm than good for their students.

The diminishing value of college degrees is also reflected in underemployment statistics. In February 2024, the Burning Glass Institute found 44% of recent college graduates with a terminal Bachelor’s degree in Illinois were underemployed. In the U.S., that figure was 45% a decade after graduation.

Additionally, of those that were underemployed five years after graduation, 88% worked in jobs that did not require additional education or training beyond a high school education.

Attending college without later realizing the benefits is associated with devastating financial costs, especially for those already in poverty. In Illinois, the average student loan debt is the highest in the Midwest: $37,644.

For the 44% of recent college graduates in Illinois who don’t use their education in their careers, there is zero reason to have to carry the debt in the first place.

The idea that a four-year degree is universally necessary for economic prosperity is a myth. For a considerable number of people in Illinois, it may even point in the opposite direction: toward debt and poverty.

Instead, to best set children up for success and to enter the workforce, Illinois can enact the following reforms:

  • Adopting a “careers-first” model for K-12 education.
  • Expanding and improving career and technical education programs in schools.
  • Raising awareness for and expanding access to apprenticeships and other work-based learning opportunities.
  • Reducing the stigma around attending community college.
  • Studying the changing labor market to anticipate future labor needs.
  • Reorient the focus of schools to best respond to those needs.

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