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How Post-Secondary Education Sets Up Students for Success

post secondary education

Students entering their junior year should consider what is going to come next after their diploma. For many, it will be post-secondary education

What is post-secondary education? Post-secondary education is a path to higher learning through colleges, universities, institutes of technology, academies, vocational or trade schools, or seminaries. It is the education adults pursue to earn degrees, learn a trade, or gain career-specific skills as they seek a better quality of life and a more fulfilling career.  

Traditional Types of Post-Secondary Education Institutions

The traditional institutions for higher education are the community college and the university. There is more to each than meets the eye, and it is important to understand what each offer. 

Community Colleges

A typical community college offers associate degrees, which are completed in two years, but that is not the only option. In order to keep up with the demand for more opportunities in postsecondary education, community colleges also offer trade certifications, from manufacturing and industry careers to healthcare fields. 

Benefits provided by community colleges include smaller campuses, smaller class sizes, and more individualized attention.  Most undergraduate students (40 percent) attend community colleges, but the campuses also attract adults and elders, known as non-traditional students (“Community College: FAQ,” 2019). 

Sebastian had heard from his friend, Hannah, that the local community college was holding an open house that night, so he and his parents attended. While there, they discovered some of the advantages community colleges offer (“Community College: FAQ,” 2019):

  • Open admission (even students without top grades may try out classes)
  • Low tuition rates (community college credits cost less than university credits)
  • Flexible course schedules (courses offered at different times of the day and night)
  • Transferability of credits (coursework may be transferred to university studies)

Sebastian and his parents also learned about programs offered to students while still in high school. These programs would give him the opportunity to take college classes and earn credit both at the high school and at the postsecondary level. Emma, Sebastian’s mother, was excited to hear more. 

post secondary education student

Earning Credit While in High School

In recent years, community colleges have partnered with high schools to create dual credit and concurrent credit programs designed to give students a head start on their coursework (Bangser, & Michael, 2008)

Dual Credit Programs. Students interested in dual credit classes sign up as they would for any high school course. The classes are taught by trained high school teachers during regular school hours. There is little-to-no disruption in a student’s day because the classes are also held in the same building, and the only difference is in the level of difficulty. Credits earned apply to both high school and college. Best of all, classes are offered free of charge to students who qualify.

Concurrent credit programs. In this case, students sign up for college classes taught by college faculty instead. Like the dual credit programs, however, students earn both high school and college credits at once. One benefit of this program is introducing high school students to the rigors of higher education in a smaller dose.

Sebastian’s cousin had enrolled in a concurrent program while a senior in high school. She explained that while the workload was much heavier than her regular classes, the support she received from both her secondary and postsecondary schools gave her a positive experience. 

The best part, she said, was the ability to graduate from high school with most of her early core classes already completed. It saved her both time and money in the long run. Sebastian’s parents, Daniel and Emma, were thrilled to hear the news. Perhaps they had found a solution, but more research was required. 

Universities. A university is different from a community college in a few ways. Rather than a two-year, associate degree, students may earn a four-year bachelor’s degree. After that point, there are also options for graduate degrees, varying from a master’s, Master of Fine Arts, doctorate, or advanced medical and law degrees. 

While community college students do not live on campus, university students do have that option. Student housing covers living expenses such as rent, utilities, and Internet access. In addition, universities increasingly offer more amenities such as flexible food plans, gym memberships, lounges, and updated classrooms. 

Daniel decided to discuss university options with his son’s counselor at school. When he asked her for more information, Sarah, Sebastian’s counselor, introduced him to both private and public university opportunities.

She explained that public universities are government-funded, while private universities are funded by endowments and student tuition fees. As a result, private institution tuition and fees are more expensive than public ones. 

Why is Postsecondary Education Important for Income?

In our ever-increasingly technology-based economy, higher education is crucial to learning the skills needed for a profitable career (Bangser & Michael, 2008). Currently, the unemployment rate is low, but many of those positions are low-wage low-skill jobs.

Too many adults who work those positions must more than one job to make ends meet. In fact, “education beyond high school, and often at least a bachelor’s degree is now considered to be necessary for access to economically viable jobs” (Bailey, Thomas Kienzl, Gregory Marcotte, & David, 2004). 

Statistics show that postsecondary education has a significant impact on lifetime earnings. In fact, even some higher education experience has an effect, though not as great. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (“Measuring the value of education: Career Outlook,” 2018), the following numbers are an eye-opener, even when it comes to a weekly salary:

Why is there such a difference? Employers look for educated workers who already have most, if not all the skills necessary to fill positions in the company. In-house training is expensive, but if an employee comes ready to work, overhead costs are lower for the owner. That means workers with at least some postsecondary education have an advantage over those with none. 

That advantage means a lower unemployment rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (“Measuring the value of education: Career Outlook,” 2018):

Some College, No Degree

What if a student enrolls, but does not finish a degree program? Would that student be worse off than no college experience? Statistics show that even an incomplete postsecondary education is better than none. 

Women in four-year programs who did not earn a degree earned 15 percent more than women without postsecondary education. The impact on women who did not finish community college credentials did not fare as well, but their income was still 10 percent higher. (Bailey et al., 2004).

Men also benefit, but not by as much. Male students who fell short of a bachelor’s degree earned 10 percent more, while those in community colleges earned just 6 percent more. (Bailey et al., 2004).

Associate’s Degree

While both men and women benefit from earning an associate degree, it is women who see the biggest return on investment. In 2004, women saw a 39 percent increase of income over non-degree holders, while men saw 16 percent. These numbers apply to academic degrees, but those in occupational programs who earned associate degrees earned even more (Bailey et al., 2004). 

Sebastian’s little brother, Jacob, always had a passion for heavy equipment since he was a child. Daniel would take his young son to construction sites as a treat, just so he could see the “big trucks” or take him to manufacturing plants, so he could see the “big robots.” 

As Sebastian and Jacob’s parents learned more about post-secondary education, they considered an occupational associate degree option for Jacob. He still had a few years to think about it, but it sounded exciting to him. 

Bachelor’s Degree

Not surprisingly, a bachelor’s degree has an even larger impact on lifetime earnings. Depending upon the field of study and career, degree holders earn 55 to 66 percent more than high school graduates. In addition, following through with a degree rather than completing just one year yielded four times the return on investment (Bailey et al., 2004). 

There were so many career fields that interested Sebastian: engineering, aviation, and even architecture, yet he had little experience with any of them. Could he decide while attending a university? Sarah, Sebastian’s school counselor, told him yes. 

The first two years at a university are dedicated to general studies, called “core classes.” Even within required core classes, students are offered options. The purpose of these courses is to help students solidify core skills (hence the name) and settle on their major. A major is a specific field in which a student earns a degree, and the later years are spend devoted to those studies. 

Graduate Degree

A graduate degree is considered anything beyond a bachelor’s degree, including a master’s, professional, and doctoral. Depending upon the occupation, those with graduate degrees do earn more than those with bachelor’s, but that is not always so.

High school students just beginning the journey into post-secondary education and their parents need to investigate whether an advanced degree is necessary for their chosen career before assuming it is necessary. 

Master’s degrees are most commonly awarded in the business field and offered “some of the highest wage premiums for workers with a master’s degree” (“Should I get a master’s degree? Career Outlook,” 2015). Education is not uniformly beneficial to degree holders.

Postsecondary teachers with a Ph.D. earned the lowest wage premiums in part because the degree is necessary for entry-level work (“Should I get a master’s degree? Career Outlook,” 2015), while careers in the STEM and healthcare fields held varying degrees of payoff for graduate degrees.

Other Reasons Why Post-Secondary Education is Important

Sebastian had heard all the monetary reasons why he should continue with his education, but he wasn’t sure if there were any other reasons for doing so. He caught his favorite teacher in the hall at school one day to ask what she thought. 

“Ms. Grey, why should I go to college. I mean, I get that I’ll make more money, but is there any other reason? It sounds like a lot of time, effort, and money for just a piece of paper,” Sebastian asked. 

“I’m glad you asked me,” his teacher replied, “Actually, there are quite a few reasons.” 

Financial Contributions

College graduates can contribute more to federal, state, and local governments (“The Benefits of Higher Education,” 2018). As a result, government entities: 

  • Receive greater tax revenues
  • Spend less on Food Stamps and National School Lunch Programs
  • Spend less on social support and incarceration costs

Civic Contributions 

College graduates also enjoy health and civic benefits that in turn benefit others (“The Benefits of Higher Education,” 2018). Those benefits mean they are more likely to:

  • Earn pensions and health insurance
  • Lead healthier lifestyles, leading to reduced health care costs
  • Actively “engage in educational activities” with their children, making them “better prepared for school than other children.” 
  • Donate time to volunteer activities

Negotiating Finances

post secondary education finances

There are several options when attempting to pay for post-secondary education. There are federal and state student aid programs, institution-based programs, and non-profit or private organizations.

The most important thing to remember is filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form every year. The form is necessary in order to apply for any kind of financial aid. The following information is provided from the Federal Student Aid Office, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education (“Types of Aid,” 2019):

Federal and State Financial Aid 

  • Grants (financial aid that does not require repayment unless the student withdraws from school)
  • Work-Study (financial aid through work to help pay for school)
  • Loans (financial aid that is borrowed and later paid back with interest)

Institution-Based Programs

  • Scholarships (financial aid that does not require repayment unless the student withdraws from school)
  • Loans (financial aid that is borrowed and later paid back with interest)

Non- Profit or Private Organizations

  • Scholarships and Grants (financial aid that does not require repayment unless the student withdraws from school)

Other Forms of Financial Aid

  • Tax benefits
  • Aid from military service
  • Aid from being the child or spouse of a veteran
  • Education Award from AmeriCorps service
  • Educational and Training Vouchers for “current and former foster care youth”
  • Loans and scholarships through the Department of Health and Human Services

How Parents Can Help 

After Sebastian, Jacob and their parents had looked through all the materials, they were ready to make decisions for the future; however, they also wanted to prepare while they had time now. There were several skills they discovered Sebastian and Jacob would need:

  • Resilience (College is not meant to be easy, and students need the mental fortitude necessary to recover from challenges and setbacks. Fortunately, it is something that can be learned and modeled by parents.)
  • Resourcefulness (Students have many resources at hand, but they need to know when and how to ask for help)
  • Resistance (Mental health and substance abuse issues are prevalent among college students. Both students and parents can work together to communicate, encourage, and act if problems arise) 
completing post secondary education

Final Thoughts

A post-secondary education is important for numerous reasons: financial, health, and civic stability. Beyond external factors, however, is the opportunity for students to learn critical thinking skills. Those skills allow them to decipher all the messages that constantly bombard all of us. As a result, they become better workers, consumers, and citizens. 

Parents can help their children reach these goals by modeling self-reliant behavior, supporting educational goals, and helping to navigate the financial aid process. Beyond that, parents may keep the lines of communication open and be supportive. 


Bailey, Thomas Kienzl, Gregory Marcotte, & David. (2004, July 31). Who Benefits from 

Postsecondary Occupational Education? Findings from the 1980s and 1990s. CCRC Brief Number 23. Retrieved from

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