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Plotting The Right Path To A Job Matters More Than Ever In Today's 'College Economy'

Celia Llopis-Jepsen
KCUR/Kansas News Service
Students graduate from Washburn University in December 2018.

TOPEKA — The glittery gold print on Cara Simon’s graduation cap begged — maybe only half-jokingly — for a break: “Can I take a nap now?”

Toilsome college coursework may have kept the Wichita native up at night, but looking for a job won’t. Simon lined one up at an emergency room before even graduating — one of the benefits of earning a nursing degree.

“It’s so versatile,” she said. “You can work in a million different places. You can work in any state. It’s exciting.”

College remains the single most reliable path to a lifetime of higher earnings. But burgeoning student debt and a job landscape transformed by computers and automation ratchet up the pressure on students to choose their majors wisely.

Good jobs to look at? Ones that involve high-level interpersonal work and skilled judgment in growing fields. For starters, nursing.

Over the next several years, nursing jobs are expected to grow twice as fast as others.

Ten thousand Americans reach Medicare eligibility — 10,000, every day,” said Monica Scheibmeir, dean of Washburn’s School of Nursing. “We’ve never had to deal with that before.”

Credit Celia Llopis-Jepsen / KCUR/Kansas News Service
KCUR/Kansas News Service

Pressure to choose right

Nursing student Hani Choi wrestled with whether to go to college and what to study before plunging into the four-year degree that she’ll finish in May.

“What am I getting myself into?” she recalls thinking. “Is this worth it? Am I wasting my time?”

She looked to nursing school. It offered a swift path to a fast-paced career with solid pay.

The average Kansas student attending a four-year college graduates with at least $27,000 in debt.

At the same time, they face a job market where college degrees have become commonplace. In 1940, just one in 20 Americans earned four-year degrees. Today, one in three does.

Molly Scott, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., warns of less reliable returns for college degrees that once all but ensured good pay.

“That may be harder and harder,” she said, “to see the same kinds of benefits that we saw people get, you know, 20, 30 years ago for getting a college degree.”

The Institute points to federal data that show recent graduates with bachelor’s degrees can expect a slightly lower median wage today than they could back in 1990 (adjusted for inflation). Tuition and fees, meanwhile, have tripled.

Another nursing student, Angela Raposa, struggled to use her degree in biology before returning to college to top it off.

“I could do nothing with it,” she said. “So I had to find something that only took a couple of years, and that I’d be able to get a job with afterwards.”

Raposa looked into pay and demand for nurses before making her decision.

In Kansas, registered nurses earn, on average, nearly $59,000 a year. Experienced nurses can earn upward of $65,000. They can go back to school for graduate degrees that can pay off with six-figure incomes.

‘The college economy’

Higher education has long been a trusty ticket to the middle class. Yet plenty of jobs requiring just a high school diploma helped millions of Americans make it there, too.

Those jobs thinned out over time, and the Great Recession sped up the process. The year 2008 didn’t just bring massive financial turmoil, it marked the start of what Georgetown researchers term “the college economy.”

More decent-paying jobs now go to people with bachelor’s degrees than without them.

Kansas ranks among the states with the smallest share ofjobs that offer a good wage for workers without a four-year degree.

Economist Nicole Smith sees the state as an “intensified version” of the changes at play nationally.

Automation has transformed manufacturing and computers are becoming ubiquitous. Compare the work of auto mechanics decades ago, for example, with that of handling computerized cars today.

“We’ve been calling this the fourth industrial revolution,” said Smith, the chief economist at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

Credit Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce
This chart, created by Georgetown University researchers, shows 2008 as the year when four-year college grads began holding the bulk of the nation's "good jobs."

Her research into the country’s changing job landscape helped fuel ambitious goals in Kansas and other states for educating more citizens beyond high school.

In today’s high-tech factories, Smith says, a single worker produces far more than he or she did just a few decades ago.

U.S. manufacturing output has grown 7 percent since 2000 alone, but the sector shed 4.5 million jobs over the same period.

That doesn’t mean everyone will eventually find themselves out of work. But it does mean, she says, that students need to navigate the changing landscape.

Solid job prospects

Kansas’ over-65 population — around 400,000 people today — will double by 2064. More old people means more demand for everything from doctor’s visits to surgeries to long-term care, at a time when many nurses are retiring.

A growing need for more staff may put hospitals and nursing homes in a bind, but it offers an opportunity for students.

Fearing a looming shortage of nurses, Kansas ratcheted up capacity at its nursing schools over the past decade from around 1,200 registered nursing graduates in 2005 to more than 1,800 in 2017.

Even still, registered nursing gets the highest marks possible from the Kansas Department of Labor for current demand, short-term and long-term outlook.

It beats out other oft-cited in-demand jobs, such as computer programmers, teachers and welders. Employers reported 1,500 registered nurse vacancies in the state’s most recent survey.

If the shortage intensifies, hospitals and nursing homes will feel the pain. Or more to the point, patients will.

Credit Chris Neal/Shooter Imaging
Washburn Nursing School lecturer Lara Rivera teaches students to spot health issues in newborn babies.

Understaffing puts them at greater risk of problems such as bed sores and sepsis. Work and stress pile up on nurses, increasing the risk that they’ll fall behind, make mistakes, or burn out.

“The thinner they're spread,” said Teresa Vetter, director of nursing at Newman University, “the harder it is to see everything and do everything.”

Economists recommend students consider that demand when planning their futures.

In recent years, the Kansas Legislature and the state agencies in charge of public education have prodded schools to help high-schoolers better understand the job market that awaits them.

Kansas rolled out a website where students can browse specific degrees at its universities and community colleges — and learn not just the costs, but what each program’s graduates typically earn.

The Kansas Department of Labor publishes annual lists of what employers most need, homing in on those careers that pay better than average.

The most recent list runs the gamut — from accountants to salespeople to electricians. Tyler Tenbrink, a senior economist with the department, suggests students arm themselves with it.

“That's what we hope will result,” Tenbrink said. “Use that information, and see what jobs are in high demand.”

This is Part One in our series on college and careers. Here are the rest: Part Two on planning life after high school, Part Three on Kansas' tech college boom, Part Four on free dual credit classes for high schoolers, Part Five on state investment in engineering education, Part Six on college major tips, Part Seven on "degree inflation," Part Eight on lack of access to four-year college in southwest Kansas, and Part Nine on transferring from community college to university.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org. This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association reporting fellowship program.

I'm the creator of the environmental podcast Up From Dust. I write about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. My goal is to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.
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