Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | May 1, 2017
In his seminal 1974 book, author Studs Terkel documented the experiences of everyday Americans at work. He included interviews with everyone from secretaries to barbers to auto mechanics. All told, hundreds of workers described their day-to-day experiences, shedding light on the working world of the period.
But – as some observers have already noted – the working world Terkel described more than 40 years ago no longer exists. The economy and its workforce have transformed, with most careers now calling for more education and training.
“It’s a dramatic change,” said Stephen Klineberg, founding director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “This is a clearer linear relationship than ever before; the less education you have, the more unemployment and the lower the earnings.”
But, for some reason, Houstonians aren’t buying into those well-documented trends, according to the results of the most recent Kinder Houston Area Survey, led by Klineberg.
Between 2013 and 2017, the percentage of respondents who said education beyond high school is necessary for success declined from 73 percent to 54 percent. Meanwhile the percentage that felt there are many ways to succeed with no more than a high school diploma increased from 25 percent to 43 percent.
Those results could reflect a variety of things. Perhaps Houstonians are partial to the lore of plentiful blue-collar jobs, buoyed by presidential promises of a U.S. manufacturing renaissance. Fifty-five percent of the respondents who said they voted for Trump thought higher education wasn’t necessary to be successful, while only 35 percent of those who voted for Clinton agreed.
Or maybe the findings reflect statements made by education officials about the push for “career readiness” that not only promotes career pathways but also helps students start to earn technical industry certificates and other credentials in high school.
Or it could be that younger survey respondents are simply burned out after hearing so many stories, from peers and in the press, of crippling student debt and unemployed college grads. Indeed, 42 percent of millennial respondents said education beyond high school isn’t necessary for success, more than any of the older generations.
“If you’re a millennial who came of age and entered the workforce sometime around the Great Recession, there’s a possibility you were being highly underutilized, so I can see how someone would come to that conclusion: ‘What I’m doing doesn’t require more than a high school diploma,’” explained Parker Harvey, a regional economist with the Houston-Galveston Area Council and Workforce Solutions, a workforce development organization.
But, he added, thinking further education isn’t needed doesn’t necessarily mean they’d forego it.
Even if Houstonians’ survey responses suggest they don’t feel confident about the link between education and success, their actions suggest maybe they do. A growing number of area residents are enrolling in higher education.
“I think the experience out there for young adults is very much a growing awareness of how they need education and certifications in order to get a decent job,” said Ann Stiles, executive director of Project GRAD Houston, a nonprofit aimed at helping low-income students complete college and other educational goals.
And that awareness is particularly acute for young people of color.
In the Houston-area, the number of black and Asian students enrolled in some form of post-secondary education grew by 4 and 16 percent respectively between 2009 and 2015, while the number of Hispanic students grew by 43 percent. Enrollment of white students, however, dipped by 9 percent, according to Greater Houston Partnership data.
When the Kinder Houston Area Survey responses are broken down, white and Republican-leaning respondents were more likely to say success requires no more than a high school degree. Hispanic and black respondents are consistently more likely than white respondents to affirm the importance of postsecondary credentials.
Stiles said there’s still an attitude among some people that if you work hard and pick yourself up by your bootstraps, you can be successful. But by and large, the days of non-credentialed professionals earning big salaries just do not exist anymore, she said.
For its part, the state has made moves to retool curriculum to emphasize both career and college readiness. Some school districts have partnered with local community colleges to offer dual credit programs that allow high school students to complete certificates for technical trades like welding, automotive metal repair or HVAC and refrigeration, meaning it’s possible these days for students to graduate from high school with more than a high school diploma.
But experts are cautious about the message being pushed here too.
“The certificates and associate’s degrees have an important place within our education milieu here,” said Harvey. But, he added, “a single certificate by itself may not be enough to provide an edge.”
And, Stiles said, it’s important for students to know there are many ways to get a four-year degree. “A lot of our kids, when you’re working with low income families, they have a serious and very pragmatic need to work while they’re in school. A lot of them are working in high school too. And they make a decision to take fewer hours and take longer to get that credential, but they are persisting and getting it without debt. That’s a good idea for a lot of our kids.”
More can be done, though, to make higher education attainable and ensure students are successful. Drop-out rates are still much higher for black and Hispanic students than they are for white students. As it is now, the people who value education the most and see the need for it in order to be successful are less likely to be the ones getting it.
“It’s going to be a decade or two before you start to see some gaps start to close,” said Harvey.