Poll: Many young Americans still believe a high school diploma is all they need to succeed. Research shows they’re mistaken.

Discouraging news in a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Although most young Americans ages 13-29 believe in the value and impact of higher education, nearly half say a high school diploma prepares people well for success in today’s economy, according to a new study by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. A majority of young people also express concern about the affordability of higher education and must take on debt to finance it. Over three-quarters believe the problem of higher education affordability is extremely or very serious, and a majority on both sides of the aisle support forgiving student loan debt for less affluent Americans.

Affordability and access concerns are valid. And many states, including Washington, are taking steps to address the problem. But research shows that those young adults who think a high diploma will be enough are misreading the economy. We’ve reported on the “credential is essential” work of the Washington Roundtable to reach a goal of 70.percent postsecondary credential attainment. Simply, the Roundtable has set the standard that “by the high school class of 2030, 70% of Washington students will complete a postsecondary credential–such as a degree, apprenticeship or certificate–by age 26.”

The goal is practical, not quixotic. It’s grounded in workforce demand. Research has shown that most of the jobs created in Washington in the coming years will be filled by applicants with a postsecondary credential. Innovative apprenticeship programs and career-connected learning programs are among the ways employers and educators are getting the message out.

As the AP reports, however, nationally more work needs to be done.

The [poll] findings alarm some experts who say young Americans don’t seem to be getting the message that college pays off. Federal labor data shows a wide earnings gap between Americans who do and do not have a college degree, and unemployment rates are far lower for those with a bachelor’s or master’s degree…

Researchers disputed that notion [that a diploma is enough], saying it has been decades since a high school diploma was enough to earn a good living.

“The data just do not support that,” said Thomas Brock, a research professor and director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. “With a high school diploma alone, it’s very hard to earn the kinds of wages one would need to support a family.”

There is some encouraging news, as more are recognizing different paths to postsecondary credentials.

While 6 in 10 said a bachelor’s degree is a route to success, an equal number said they see vocational school as good preparation, and about half see the same value in an associate degree. The finding was a surprise to some researchers who say students — and their parents — often think of college only as a bachelor’s degree.

“That’s not what I would expect to see,” said Heather McKay, director of the Education and Employment Research Center at Rutgers University. “It’s really great that young people are thinking of these alternatives, because there are some really good non-degree credential options out there.”

Meanwhile, one of the biggest challenges employers face today is the availability of qualified workers. For those with the credentials, the opportunities are abundant.