Reimagining education to solve Oregon’s student debt and underemployment problems

carsonstudentdept-thumbBY RYAN CARSON | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

How do we skill up our future technology workforce in a smart way to take advantage of these high-paying jobs? The answer shouldn’t focus only on helping people get a bachelor’s degree.

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Student debt is the only kind of household debt that rose through the Great Recession of 2008. It now totals over $1 trillion, a 1,225% increase since 1978 — more debt than either credit card or auto loan debt. Student debt is one of the biggest problems contributing to our country’s wealth gap.

As Americans continue following the traditional path to employment through higher education, policymakers and administrators are constantly inventing (and reinventing) ways to make education more affordable and accessible. These efforts include Measure 86, the recently defeated proposal that would have created a fund for Oregonians pursuing post-secondary education and authorized the financing of this fund via debt.

These measures should be applauded. But focusing on the cost and debt management is only the first step. And according to Oregon voters, it is not enough to move the needle. We also need to recognize ways we can transform the education system and curriculum to ensure students have the degrees and skill-sets that companies will most need in the near future.

This is the new “opportunity initiative.”

One place to start is by paying closer attention to “Degree ROI” – or the financial return students receive on the investments they make in their educational degrees. This is essential, as nearly half of all newly minted, debt-laden bachelor’s degree graduates are either unable to find employment or are “underemployed,” according to a 2014 Christensen Institute study. But Degree ROI means more than just finding a job. It also means examining whether or not the investment in a college education was even necessary in the first place. After all, more than a third of recent college graduates with jobs are working in positions that don’t require a degree, based on a study from Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies.

For Oregon graduates, underemployment in particular hits close to home as our state has one of the highest ratings for underemployment, with September’s underemployment rate up to 13.9%  from 13.5%  in August, reports The Oregonian. One way we can being to chip away at this problem is by embracing competency-based learning initiatives, including those delivered via online and vocational learning programs. They offer innovative, current curriculum that focuses on teaching the actual skills needed to fill jobs of the future.

Nowhere does this make more sense than in the lucrative field of computer programming. By 2020, there will be one million more computer programming jobs in the U.S. than workers to fill them, and 10,000 of those jobs will be in the Portland metro region. Oregon’s technology sector poses the greatest employment opportunities over the next decade. As a state, we should start examining if we’re investing the right resources and education models that will give our students the best opportunity to land these lucrative tech jobs of the future.

The interesting fact is many of these in-demand tech jobs can be filled by non-degree holders. USA Today reports that eight popular STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs do not require a college degree. Furthermore, six pay more than the national annual average wage of $45,230. In 2011, there were nearly 500,000 people working as computer systems analysts, a position that does not require a bachelor’s degree and paid $82,320, on average.

So, how do we skill up our future technology workforce in a smart way to take advantage of these high-paying jobs? The answer shouldn’t focus on just helping more people get a bachelor’s degree.

Higher education institutions need to expand their support of competency-based learning models, including those that don’t require the traditional bachelor’s degree. This is the only way that we’ll meet tech employer demands for “skilled up students,” while reducing the burden of student debt. Institutions that thwart this approach will stall the progression of innovation, widen the gulf between learning and employment and fuel the social mobility gap. Let’s reimagine a new education model that strengthens our future workforce and economic viability of Oregon.


Ryan Carson is the CEO of Treehouse, a Portland-based online coding school.  Oregon Business ran a profile of Carson in the September issue.