Grad Nation: Changing college landscape makes early career exposure more pressing

Image Courtesy of Junior Achievement of Arizona

By Katherine Cecala

May 31, 2024

By Katherine Cecala, President of Junior Achievement of Arizona

For decades, the conventional wisdom has been that earning a four-year college degree was an important step in promoting upward mobility. For the most part, that continues to be the case, as research from Georgetown University demonstrates that those with a bachelor’s degree earn significantly more during their lifetimes than those without a college education.

In recent years, though, Americans’ confidence in higher education has declined substantially and college enrollment has steadily decreased over the past decade, according to Inside Higher Ed. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that the rise of college costs has far outpaced inflation over the past 40 years.

Student loan debt in the United States now exceeds $1.77 trillion, and according to the New American think tank, 3.5 million Americans above the age of 60 still owe on student loans.

In the past, if someone chose not to go to college, they would likely pursue some other form of postsecondary education or training, get a job, maybe start a business, or possibly enlist in the military. However, today’s young adults appear to be opting for a “None of The Above” approach instead. The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas reports that the percentage of young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 who are “disconnected” – meaning not working at a job or pursuing education – is the highest it has been in nearly four decades. This could help explain why one in three US.adults between 18 and 34 still lives at home with their parents.

While this is a complicated reality, it’s a reality young people need to understand before making life-changing decisions. In order to find a job or career that pays more, aligns with personal values, offers work/life balance, and more, some level of education or training to gain marketable skills is necessary.

Junior Achievement of Arizona (JAAZ) is committed to helping streamline the transition from education to employment through our focus on work and career readiness. JAAZ partners with organizations in the communities we serve to help students make the connection between what they learn in school and life outside the classroom, including future jobs and careers. Research conducted by Ipsos for Junior Achievement shows that JA Alumni report their JA learning experiences having a positive impact on their education and career outcomes.

When it comes to education, jobs, and careers, JA Alumni say Junior Achievement positively influenced their decision to pursue higher education and their career path:

  • Roughly 90% say it exposed them to different ways of thinking, motivated them to succeed professionally and widened their horizons.
  • 88% say it made them think of new work opportunities or career paths
  • 80 %report that their careers are extremely fulfilling. Just under 75% of JA Alumni who graduated from college say they work in a field they studied in college, whereas research by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows that just more than 25% of American college graduates say they work in the field they studied in school.
  • 69% of JA Alumni say they currently work in their dream career, compared to 25% of Americans.

For these reasons and more, giving young people the ability to ask the right questions and make a plan before taking on student debt, or opting out of promising education, training, or career paths completely is crucial not only for their own success in work and life, but also the success of their surrounding communities.

To learn how to engage with Junior Achievement of Arizona, visit


  • Katherine Cecala

    A fourth-generation Arizonan, Katherine Cecala brings to Junior Achievement a diverse background in nonprofit leadership, healthcare administration, law, industrial engineering, utilities, and business. Katherine has extensive knowledge of our community and nonprofit landscape as she has served on more than 40 nonprofit boards.A master’s level instructor of philanthropy and nonprofit leadership at Arizona State University, Katherine has a BS in industrial engineering from LSU, an MBA from Louisiana Tech, and a JD from the University of Arkansas.



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