Interest in career pathways beyond the status quo is growing. Should higher ed be worried?

As parent familiarity and interest in alternative pathways grows, 40% said they want schools to start advising students about these postsecondary options as early as middle school.

Gen Z youth pursuing nontraditional credentials not involving college are increasingly satisfied with their decision. A recent report by Jobs for The Future (JFF) and American Student Assistance (ASA) suggests alternative pathways are in for another boost in popularity, thanks to parent and educator interest.

More than half of parents (51%) surveyed were familiar with non-degree pathways, and 88% expressed interest in learning more about them for their children. They associate these alternative pathways with being less costly, quicker to complete and being keys to a good job and salary upon completion.

With parents showing increased interest, students may be swayed more than ever to pursue these pathways, considering that a previous survey by JFF showed parents are students’ top influencers in how they pursue postsecondary education.

“They’re looking to their parents for advice and guidance, so it gives alternative pathways a lot more weight among learners who are on the fence about whether to pursue them or not,” says Susan Acevedo-Moyer, director of Multiple Pathways for JFF.

Exposing parents to alternative pathways were teachers who were even more excited about its potential. Nearly all educators (97%) thought their students would be interested in learning more about non-degree pathways. Furthermore, 86% said they would approve of their students pursuing a non-degree education pathway over a college or university. Educators were also among students’ stop influencers, behind their parents and friends.

The survey, conducted by Morning Consult, defined non-degree postsecondary programs as apprenticeships, boot camps, certificate programs, industry certifications and occupation licenses. ASA and JFF surveyed over 1000 parents and 500 educators (teachers and guidance counselors) of high school students.

As parent familiarity and interest in alternative pathways grows, 40% said they want schools to start advising students about these postsecondary options as early as middle school.

Roadblocks to sustained growth for alternative pathways

While employers seem to be expressing interest in non-degree credentials, more than a third (35%) of educators expressed hesitancy in discussing alternative pathways to students since they could not judge the quality for themselves.

“They never want to hurt their learners in any way,” says Acevedo-Moyer.

One of the top concerns JFF identified with alternative pathways was that the sheer quantity of credentials is growing. According to the Credential Engine, almost one million credentials are available in the U.S.

Meanwhile, guardrails that measure and qualify their quality are straggling behind. JFF and ASA have suggested that policymakers create standardized practices, but the sheer number of pathways available has slowed down the process.

“The workforce credential marketplace—the system that allows consumers to make rational decisions about which credentials are right for them and are worth the time and money it will take to earn them—doesn’t function well,” wrote Meena Naik and Nate Anderson, directors at JFF, in a company post.

An opportunity for higher ed

The paths students take to pursue their careers aren’t a zero-sum game; nontraditional modalities and higher education can proliferate together. As alternative pathways mature, Acevedo-Moyer believes higher education should strengthen inroads from these programs into degree programs, such as through prior learning and competency-based education pipelines.

“One of the things that would help a guidance counselor feel more comfortable with providing guidance, support and advice around non-degree pathways is if they knew there was also a pathway or pipeline trajectory to higher education,” she says. “If a learner was ever ready to go to college and higher education was open to recognizing their achievement outside of academia, that would reduce that risk-aversion that counselors are feeling.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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