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College Has Never Been More Important, Or Less Accessible, So Let’s Reimagine It

“The American higher-education system appears broken for all but the most well-off.”  

That’s what Jodie Adams Kirshner, a research professor at New York University’s Marron Institute, wrote this month in The Atlantic, in which she highlighted the dire consequences for students who borrow money for higher education but don’t go on to complete their degrees — an issue that disproportionately impacts people of color and those from low-income households:

Among those enrolled full-time, 40 percent of Black students and 54 percent of Latino students do not attain bachelor’s degrees within six years, compared with about two-thirds of white students. Almost half of students from families with incomes below $35,000 fail to graduate within the same period, compared with less than a third from families with incomes above $75,000. Students who drop out default on student loans at a rate three times higher than those who graduate. Families who fail to make payments on college debt risk their wages being garnished, their income-tax refunds being withheld, and their credit scores being lowered, which can make it difficult to obtain leases and can lead to higher interest rates on other loans.

That’s why, in her interviews with college age low-income students and their families, she’s found that many are enrolling in community colleges, “or eschewing education entirely.” Considering the potential long-term burden that student loans may pose in their future, it’s understandable that many families are skeptical of borrowing money for higher education — even if it might open the door to better jobs and better pay down the line.

A College Education Can Still Supercharge a Career

Yet the benefits of a college education are real.  If anything, having a college education has only gotten more important in the 21st century economy.  Surveys have repeatedly shown that only the college educated are having an economic recovery. Many jobs that paid good salaries without requiring a college education have simply vanished during the pandemic, and automation is increasingly on track to eliminate millions more.  

A recent study showed that:

  • It takes 30 years of work experience for an adult without a college degree to catch up to the wage a bachelor’s degree holder earns on the first day of their career.
  • There are now 7.5 million jobs in the economy that used to be accessible to people without a college degree, but now require one.
  • In none of the 50 largest metro regions in the U.S. do people without college degrees earn equal pay for equal work when compared to bachelor’s degree holders. 


A degree from a traditional college isn’t the only way to get ahead, however, as research also shows that earning micro-credentials and certifications can substantially benefit someone’s career, as companies are increasingly hiring for skills, not degrees.

In many ways higher education has never been more valuable. Yet fewer people are enrolling because, as Kirshner has found, because they don’t think the higher education system works for them.  

Reimagining Community College to Make it Fast, Free, and Focused

The good news is that Calbright College was created to better meet students’ needs and prepare them for better-paying careers without burdening them with debt. We are a free online community college that doesn’t offer degrees. Instead, we prepare students to get the certifications they need to go into fields which are hiring for good, upwardly mobile, jobs. 

Using an approach called Competency-Based Education, Calbright gives students the flexibility to study on their own time, at their own pace, in a way that fits their lives. This makes Calbright accessible to working adults and family caretakers: they don’t have to take out loans, and they can study on their own schedules. We prepare students for certification in a new career in IT, in Cybersecurity, and CRM Platform Administration, in less than six months – but they can take all the time they need. And Calbright accepts every adult Californian with a high school degree or equivalent who applies. 

In California we’ve reimagined college to make it accessible to everyone – including the least advantaged, including working adults, and including non-traditional students. We’re making college a system that works so that students who might otherwise drop out of higher education entirely have a clear path forward to college-level skills. 

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