The question of whether a college degree–especially a four-year college degree–is still “worth it” is being asked by many graduating students as they discover sobering truths about the cost of their education. Here are some facts to consider.

The 2013 report from the Project on Student Debt found that average debt for college seniors graduating in 2013 was $28,400, the highest on record, and up 2 percent from the 2012 figure of $27,850. In recent years, that average debt figure has grown steadily and has generally outpaced inflation, even as earnings for bachelor’s-degree holders have stagnated.

The unemployment rate of young four-year college graduates today is nearly 7.8 percent, about the same as the population at large. Of even greater concern are estimates that suggest that the percentage of young college graduates working in jobs that don’t really require a college education might be as high as 30 percent. And these numbers mask the fact that nearly half of those who start out in a four-year college do not finish. The point about statistics like these is that in today’s economy what you study matters more than how many years you study. Recent data from Florida tell us that 2009 graduates with a technical degree from Florida’s community colleges are outearning the average graduate from the state’s four-year institutions by over $10,000.

In recent years it has become increasingly clear that our current (and future) economy’s jobs are requiring a higher level of skills and formal credentials — particularly in high growth industry sectors, such as healthcare and STEM fields. Many of today’s employers report difficulties in finding talent to meet their skill needs, and job seekers of all backgrounds are experiencing difficulties obtaining sustainable employment without a formal post-secondary credential.

This pressing demand for skilled and credentialed workers — which many employers and workforce developers have termed the infamous “skills gap” — has also contributed to a growing trend in conversations around education and workforce solutions: Career Pathways.

Career Pathway programs, although diverse in their specific priorities and strategies, are generally designed to more closely align education and industry and to establish a streamlined pathway for students and job-seekers to transition from education into living-wage employment. Stakeholders across the nation have been implementing a wide range of career pathway programs, which have addressed various focus-areas such as:

Young adults: Beginning with career-focused high school programs, transitioning students into career and technical post-secondary certification and degree programs

Working and older adult populations: Focusing on the specific needs of job-seekers who have already been in the workforce for a significant period and are now in need of further training and job opportunities

Special populations: Tackling educational and workforce-related barriers specific to populations such as returning veterans and individuals with disabilities

Employer-driven: Centralizing the need for employers to invest in linking training activities with opportunities for formal credentialing

As summarized in this 2015 Department of Education-funded study, career pathway programs have been found to share a number of important common characteristics, including: collaboration and partnerships, data sharing, resource coordination, and employer engagement — among others.

So what does all this mean for learners?

As the post-secondary landscape continues to integrate new transformations and innovations (e.g. online learning, open educational resources, competency-based education), there now exists a broad array of customizable training and education options, which, although empowering, can also be confusing for learners seeking career-oriented credentials. Many adults — whether they are recent high school graduates or second-career baby boomers — often find themselves taking courses or engaging in educational programs that do not ultimately lead to a marketable credential.

Career pathway programming can play an important navigational role in linking such diverse, and often non-linear, educational activities with actual opportunities for living-wage employment. For a high-school student who is responsible for contributing to a family income, for example, this focused approach to education and job training could result in years of time and thousands of tuition dollars saved before s/he can start earning sustainable wages.

Thus far, the career pathway approach appears to be a promising solution to help address some of our economy’s most pressing workforce concerns. As the model continues to develop and expand through further transformations in higher education and our economic climate, so much remains to be seen about its impacts for our nation’s job-seeking learners, as well as what role new innovations will play in bringing these programs to scale.

Stay tuned for Career Pathways, Part 2, about our quest to introduce Open Educational Resources (OER) into career pathway projects.