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The Editors

A B.A. Isn’t the Only Way

Plenty of good jobs don’t require a four-year degree. Let’s give young people an alternative.

Diminishing returns?

Diminishing returns?

Photograph: Digital Vision

Every year millions of Americans receive an asset that, based on past performance, promises to nearly double their lifetime incomes: a bachelor’s degree. Earning one is an achievement to be proud of. For the vast majority of young adults, however, this prize is increasingly out of reach. One answer is to make college more affordable — by lowering tuition, increasing financial aid for poor students, and reducing the time needed to graduate. Such reforms deserve support. But a different answer is no less worthy of attention. Policy-makers, educators and employers should focus on providing viable alternatives to a traditional college education.

There’s no doubt, having a college diploma helps. College graduates amount to about one-third of the total U.S. workforce, but account for nearly 80 percent of those in the top quintile of the income distribution. In 1979, wages for workers with a bachelor’s degree were 34 percent higher than those with only a high-school education. Today the wage premium is 68 percent.