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It has long been a given that a four-year college degree is a prerequisite for moving up the economic ladder in the U.S. But for others, that requirement is having unintended consequences, including negatively affecting their mental health. Paul Solman has the story for our series on "Rethinking College."
It has long been a given that a four-year college degree is a prerequisite for moving up the economic ladder, but, for some, that requirement is having unintended consequences.
Paul Solman has the story for our series on Rethinking College.
So I type in C-O-N-S-T, space, port.
In Durham, North Carolina, software engineer Tony Byrd is so sure of his skills, he was game to try to teach me how to code.
Tony Byrd, Software Engineer:
And the spaces and the format is very particular.
Oscar Anya, Ethical Hacker:
I love understanding systems.
Paul Solman White hat hacker Oscar Anaya, who grew up dirt poor in a Texas border town, is pretty confident himself.
Because I have always been good at computer hacking.
In Cumberland, Maryland, the heart of Appalachian coal country:
John Hartman, Cybersecurity Engineer :
My high school mascot was a coal miner.
Cybersecurity engineer John Hartman isn't bashful either.
There was no better candidate for than me for that job.
But Hartman didn't have a college degree. Neither did Anaya or Byrd. And that, that alone, kept them out of good jobs for years. Byrd, quarterback of his high school football team, let his chance for an athletic scholarship simply slip away.
I just kept procrastinating and pushing it off, and didn't put in the application form like I should have.
Instead, he wound up working as a barista for seven years. His current colleague, Mariana Perez, also now a software engineer, toiled as a manicurist for nine years, as she struggled to pay for community college.
Mariana Perez, Software Engineer, IBM North Carolina:
I had to stop, work, make sure I had the money, and then continue, because I didn't want to have loans.
In John Hartman's second year of community college:
My car just broke down. I had an '88 Ford Bronco. The transmission went out on me twice. I can't afford to go to college. I need to go get a job.
At a local factory building cabinets, followed by stints as a freight train conductor, then shift work at a paper mill.
One of the most dangerous industries that there is, chemicals, moving machinery, that anybody could get swept into and hurt.
Oscar Anaya also dropped out of community college and took high-risk work on an oil rig.
In the sun, with chemicals and helicopters and things like that. I was breathing in a lot of small fine particles of granite.
So, it completely destroyed my nostrils and my sinuses. So I had to leave that job. And I was like, you know what? I'm good with computers. I should try doing something with computers. So I applied and I applied and I applied, and no one was picking me up.
Why was no one picking you up?
Something's happening that is just not letting me through.
And the only criteria that I could think of is education. And I honestly started falling into a very nihilistic way of seeing the world that where I was like, you know what? This is just how it's going to be. I'm probably never going to make as much as my friends are making because I just didn't finish college.
You mean you had good reason to believe you were being rejected because you don't have a college degree. That then made you feel inadequate because you didn't have a college degree?
It contributed to my downward spiral emotionally, yes.
Anaya is far from alone, says economist Byron Auguste.
Byron Auguste, President and Co-Founder, Opportunity@Work: Over the last 40 years, we have come to a place where the vast majority of middle class jobs require a bachelor's degree to be considered.
Sometimes to the point of absurdity.
Even though two-thirds of administrative assistants don't have bachelor's degrees, three-quarters of the new job postings for administrative assistants say you have to have a bachelor's degree to be considered for that job.
So, two-thirds of the people who currently do that job can't apply for three-quarters of the new jobs in the field.
Nick Corcodilos, AsktheHeadHunter.com:
Sometimes, a company will require a college degree just because they can.
Hiring expert Nick Corcodilos, who runs the Ask The Headhunter Web site, says the degree hurdle emerged as help-wanted ads moved online and the number of applicants per job exploded.
Sometimes, a company will get 10,000 applicants for one job. How do they winnow them out? One of the easiest ways is just to require a college degree.
Well, this is obviously discriminatory against people who don't have a college degree, right?
Well, but you can't accuse a company of discriminating because they ask for a college degree, can you? You can't process people through a database. You can process their keywords through a database, and a college degree is nothing more than a keyword.
But the net effect is discriminatory. Overall, more than 60 percent of American workers don't have a four-year degree, but, says Byron Auguste:
When you put a bachelor's degree screen on a job, you exclude almost 70 percent of African Americans. You exclude almost 80 percent of Latino workers. And, by the way, you even exclude almost 70 percent of rural workers of all races.
And that, says Auguste, has been fueling inequality since 1980, pushing wages for those with just a high school diploma down 13 percent, adjusted for inflation, while wages for those with a four-year degree have risen by 13 percent.
For men, the difference in lifetime earnings is now around a million dollars.
To say that college can be a bridge to opportunity, well, that's great. But to make college a drawbridge that pulls up, and if you can't cross it, then you have no path to opportunity…
And you wind up in the low-wage moat.
So, I did a little bit of valet parking.
I finally got on with UPS as a package handler for the Christmas season.
I went into retail. I sold computers.
I'm tired of being at the mercy of all these other jobs. I want a career.
This simplistic bachelor's degree screen, it's really outlived its usefulness. So, employers are leaving so much talent on the table.
Not all employers, however. IBM, for instance, has earn-while-you-learn apprenticeship programs, which have trained the four people you have now met, no experience required, though Oscar Anaya, now on IBM's top hacker team, already had plenty of skills.
I have been hacking computers since I was 12 years old.
Because that was the only way he could get a computer.
We were extremely poor. So, what could I afford?
An old one for $20 bucks locked. So, he had to hack his way in. And fittingly, during his apprenticeship interview:
He was asking me things about how to break into things.
Like electronic ankle bracelets.
I told them that a lot of the attacks could be done with a $3 screwdriver and a couple of cables, which is something that your security system would not imagine. And, yes, that's how I got accepted into the IBM apprenticeship.
As did Tony Byrd, after seven years behind the Starbucks counter in the IBM lobby. When did it occur to you that you could actually work at IBM?
So, that's when my friend Dave comes in.
Software engineer Dave Green, who was a regular customer.
David Green, Software Engineer, IBM North Carolina :
It happened one day when he asked me, how do I go upstairs and do what you're doing? I'm like, well, you just got to learn how to talk to computers. And he asked me, can you teach me how to do that? I said, what are you doing during lunch?
Green tutored. Byrd learned the basics of coding. On his second try, he passed the apprenticeship test and immediately tripled his pay.
Are you sorry you didn't go to college?
No, not now.
And so a final question for philosopher and longtime Professor Martha Nussbaum.
Do you think every young person in America should go to college?
Martha Nussbaum, University of Chicago: Yes. Well, everyone who wants to.
Going to college has three purposes. One is to prepare you for a job. A second is to prepare you for a life full of richness and meaning. And the third is to prepare you to be a good citizen.
As she argues in her book "Not For Profit," without good citizens, democracy dies. but she adds:
The first thing is, everyone should have the opportunity to do it without a crushing burden of cost.
That's why IBM's former software apprentices could hardly believe their ears when IBM's Kelli Jordan told them:
Kelli Jordan, Director of Career, Skills, and Performance, IBM D: We have been partnering with the American Council on education, and they have actually determined that the software development apprenticeship program is worth up to 45 college credits, which is the equivalent of three semesters of college.
Putting Tony Byrd close to an associate's degree.
Wow. That's impressive. That's great news.
Yes, that's some great news. Thank you.
And Mariana Perez close to her bachelor's, though she no longer needs one to get a high-paying job.
For the "PBS NewsHour," Paul Solman.
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Paul Solman has been a business, economics and occasional art correspondent for the PBS NewsHour since 1985.
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