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Specialized vs. Generalized Post-Secondary Education

November 3, 2020
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WRITTEN BY Dr. Brittany Whitley

Although the specific missions of career/technical colleges, community colleges, four-year colleges and universities vary, higher education institutions are typically expected to provide some level of both general education and career training. Short-term certificate programs tend to emphasize trade-specific skills and have high rates of job placement immediately after graduation. Bachelor’s degree programs, including liberal arts pathways, sometimes experience a more gradual increase in earnings that often surpass trade-specific degrees and prepare students to adapt to changing workforce needs. It is therefore relevant to consider multiple elements when determining the return on investment of specific higher education programs, including long versus short term tradeoffs in earnings and job mobility.


  • Although college students often value career-related courses more than general education requirements, employers consistently report that many job applicants lack transferable skills, including communication, work ethic, teamwork and critical thinking.
  • Highly technical skills and degrees which are tailored to specific industry needs tend to lead to faster job placement. However, broader educational training that emphasizes transferable skills is associated with increased earnings and job mobility over time.
  • Students of color, as well as low-income and older students, are generally overrepresented in the middle skills pathway (certificates, associate’s degrees), which may signal a lack of equitable access to the range of higher education opportunities.


  • It is difficult to assess how well a specific educational program provides transferable skills. There is no universal agreement about how to define such skills (e.g., critical thinking).
  • While survey data describes student and employer needs, existing research has not compared how much the match/mismatch between training and employer needs impacts aspects like firm productivity, employee retention and promotion, and lifetime earnings.
  • In addition to the role of postsecondary institutions, skills training and continuing education can also occur within businesses, which is not discussed in this brief.
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