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Why A College Degree Still Matters

In an era of doom-and-gloom headlines about higher education, we simply cannot overlook the enduring value of a college degree. Earning a degree remains a game-changer, especially for the young leaders Degrees of Change serves, many of whom are Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), first-generation, and low-income. Let’s explore why college-to-career support is critical and how we can bridge the gap between education and meaningful careers for historically underserved students.

Lifelong Earnings and Influence 

Despite waning faith in higher ed, college degrees are still in high demand by employers. Data consistently shows that people with four-year degrees earn more money and experience lower unemployment rates: In 2021, median weekly earnings were nearly twice as high and unemployment rates nearly twice as low for those with a four-year degree compared to those with a high school diploma (U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics).

Beyond financial gains, a degree serves as a steppingstone to a meaningful career—one that allows graduates to make a lasting impact within their communities. With 72% of jobs expected to require postsecondary education by 2031, higher education is critical for economic mobility. This is huge for students who do not come from generational wealth or who are the first in their families to go to college.

Addressing Negative Narratives

But the growing negative narratives surrounding college degree attainment are disproportionately affecting underserved students. For BIPOC students, low-income, and first-generation students, doubts often arise: Is college attainable for me? It’s so expensive. How can I go to college without sufficient resources? Even if I secure financial support, how will I navigate being on campus?

When we push narratives that college degrees aren’t valuable, we reinforce underserved students’ uncertainty about higher ed and belief that historically underrepresented students shouldn’t go to college. This takes away a critical pathway for these students to achieve economic mobility. We must actively combat these negative narratives and provide clear information to underserved students about the attainability and value of a degree.

After his Seed internship, Nico was hired full-time by Virginia Mason Franciscan Health (Photo by Sharon Ho Chang)

Financial Aid and Wraparound Support

We must also ensure underserved students know what resources are available to them and that they have full wraparound support throughout their college careers. Washington State has some of the most generous financial aid in the country, but one of the lowest FAFSA completion rates and college enrollment rates of any state. We must bridge this resource gap. However, financial resources aren’t enough.

BIPOC, low-income, and first-generation students can also encounter unique obstacles at four-year schools that were not originally designed for them. Lack of diversity among college faculty can lead to weaker student relationships and student drive. Isolation, essentializing, and negative stereotypes can affect students’ confidence, sense of belonging, and academic performance. Providing the right wraparound support is crucial for these students to graduate.

Beyond Admissions: College to Career

Challenges persist after underserved students navigate their academic journey. The next uphill battle? Gaining entry into meaningful employment and impactful careers. Currently, we see a heavy emphasis on admissions and enrollment in higher ed. But at Degrees of Change, we firmly believe equal focus must be placed on ensuring student graduation and successful transition to employment.

Without college to career pathways that set students up for success, college graduates can end up underemployed. It’s why Degrees of Change is doubling down on our internship program. Professional internships provide practical experience, bridging the gap between education and the labor market needs. We are not only preparing underserved students for meaningful careers and equipping them to make a difference in their communitieswe are also showing them how valuable their degree will be.

Written by Sharon Ho Chang, Communications Director

Featured image: Our Seed Teachers program offers underserved students a cohort-based path to a college degree and high-impact teaching job. (Photo by Sharon Ho Chang)

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