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Bachelor's degree: Has it lost its edge and its value?

Undervalued and overpriced, the beleaguered bachelor's degree is losing its edge as the hallmark of an educated, readily employable American.

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There is general agreement that postsecondary education is necessary in our increasingly global and information-based economy. The question is: What kind of postsecondary education will best serve each individual, given the needs of the labor market?

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Already, education has become "much more textured, and more and more related to occupations," says Carnevale.

This means that alternatives to the bachelor's are mushrooming. Options range from expensive for-profit institutions to free, online nondegree classes taught by Ivy League faculty through Udacity and Coursera and company-specific training classes such as Novell computer technology certifications or Microsoft certifications in cloud technology.

"Even at the university level," Hagedorn adds, "we've seen a growth of certificates, a shorter-term set of courses that leads to more specific training."

Some two-year institutions like East Mississippi Community College in Columbus and Macomb Community College in Detroit are partnering with local employers to run specialized training programs in such areas as avionics or automotive technology.

But just as some manufacturing sectors are reporting worrisome shortages of qualified workers, cuts in state funding are forcing many community colleges to replace occupational classes with cheaper-to-run liberal arts courses.

Where are the welders?

Ojay McKendry is uniquely positioned to see the disconnect between legions of inexperienced college graduates expecting managerial jobs and employers unable to find the highly skilled workers they need. He runs a medium-sized employment agency in Bakersfield, Calif., where one of the largest employers is the oil industry.

"It is hard to find a good welder," he says, "and there are not necessarily a lot of training programs for this." In other fields, too, he sees positions "that require some kind of technical training" go unfilled because "the training may not be readily available or is very expensive."

A recent Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development analysis of global skills strategy calls attention to this shortage in the United States and to the lingering social stigma associated with vocational training programs. If the US heeds this warning, this could change. Already, some certificate programs are "held in a little bit higher esteem" as full degrees are devalued, says Hagedorn.

The key word here is "some."

Take Winston Mitchell's case, for example. On a recent morning, he manned a jobs fair recruiting booth at Brooklyn's Kingsborough Community College. Offering unpaid internships for a TV news magazine that airs on PBS and local access channels in the New York City area, Mr. Mitchell says he pays little attention to transcripts and grades.

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