More than 40 million Americans — roughly one out of every seven adults — have earned college credit but have no degree to show for their time and money.
Florida native Alix Petkov is one of them. He enrolled in college right after high school with the idea of becoming a psychiatrist. Unaware that this career choice required medical school — and unable to afford college, much less a graduate education — Petkov changed majors twice and found himself making only halting progress toward a bachelor’s degree.
An on-campus job in information technology rekindled his interest in computers, but the gig paid just $10 per hour, and his computer science classes covered the same things he had already picked up at work.
So Petkov quit college roughly 30 credits short of a degree, with $16,000 in student loans and a credit card balance of $4,000 from paying living expenses.
He burnished his tech portfolio with freelance computer work, applied for IT jobs, worked in restaurants and stewed over his frustrating experience, later saying that “College only destroyed me.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. Like millions of other learners, Petkov was forced into an outdated and bureaucratic model of higher education that’s not designed for how people navigate learning and work today.
Far too many learners are pausing their education long before they earn a credential because they run out of money, time or patience. Or they wind up in a program that lacks the support and structure to meet their individualized needs and goals.
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Learners need better access to lower-cost, shorter-term programs that help them achieve their career goals.
Federal and state governments and postsecondary institutions can and should adopt policies and practices that will help students build career pathways and make alternatives to a college degree more accessible, affordable and practical.
To achieve this, federal and state policymakers must ease some of the guardrails meant to protect learners from making “bad” decisions — after all, some of these guardrails have stifled postsecondary innovation and limited competition between college and noncollege options, ultimately restricting learners’ choices. Students must also receive better information about college and noncollege pathways and outcomes both before they begin a program and while they are enrolled.
College isn’t always the best option for every learner.
Petkov said he received little — and often incorrect — information in high school and college about higher education and potential alternatives. No one advised him, for example, that he could save thousands of dollars by completing university-required general education classes at a local community college.
Looking back, Petkov admits he would have pursued a different path altogether if he had a better up-front understanding of the costs and courses required to complete a degree.
His story, which he shared with me this summer over a video call after I requested an introduction, illustrates why students need more transparent financial counseling and more options for using financial aid beyond the limited college options currently afforded by student aid programs.
Giving high school students information about program costs and financial aid well before they apply to college will aid their decision-making. Students should be able to use Pell Grants for noncollege alternative programs that have proven track records of moving students into jobs that pay family-sustaining wages.
Petkov said it didn’t become apparent until later that his financial aid and campus job wouldn’t cover all of his college expenses. Because he was awarded Pell Grants, he borrowed less than other students.
But Pell Grants can be used in just one setting: college. Had Petkov been allowed to use the federal subsidy to pursue a college alternative — like an accelerated tech or healthcare upskilling program from a noncollege provider — he would have done that instead.
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Because of time and expense, college isn’t always the best option for every learner. Mounting evidence on program-level outcomes shows that far too many of the options that the government deems “safe” simply because they are accredited have failed learners and left them no better off than if they had not pursued college at all.
Petkov didn’t find his true path until more than a year after he quit college. While searching online for IT jobs, he stumbled on information about Merit America, a nonprofit offering low-cost programs that prepare people for tech careers. (Merit America is a grantee of the Charles Koch Foundation, part of the Stand Together philanthropic community, where the author is a senior fellow.)
Merit America built on Petkov’s existing IT knowledge to give him new tech skills that allowed him to push past self-doubt and launch a successful career. After completing the program, Petkov landed a tech coordinator’s job at a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that started him at $45,000 — more than twice what he was making in food service.
Two jobs later, he’s currently the IT director of an executive coaching firm and makes a little more than $100,000 per year. A University of Virginia analysis shows that Merit America completers see an average annual wage increase of $24,000 three or more months after finishing the program.
Merit America is among the growing number of providers preparing students for placement into high-demand tech and healthcare careers. Yet students from low-income backgrounds who rely on financial aid and loans often get little guidance about such college alternatives and may instead be advised to pursue a college degree.
It’s time to open more doors to short-term, noncollege options, so that students like Petkov can access more personalized options to help them thrive.
Steven Taylor is a senior fellow on postsecondary education at Stand Together Trust. He leads the postsecondary education and workforce policy portfolio and partnership strategy.
This story about debt but no degree was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.