College is an investment. In fact, it is typically the largest investment that a family makes after its’ home.
This should come as no surprise to the nearly 67 million individuals in the United States that hold some form of college degree. For many, the path of higher education is fraught with staggering student loan debt and the assurance, spoken or otherwise, that something better lies ahead.
That’s not to say that college isn’t worth it. Though the student debt crisis certainly makes the situation look bleak, a degree is a necessity in a variety of fields. A study conducted by the Lumina Foundation speaks to the benefits of college. Earnings are, on average, $32,000 higher. The probability of employment at all is 24% higher. Even the probability of getting married is 21% higher, with lower divorce rates to match. But between the lines lies a narrative that higher education is simply the next step after high school graduation and that it is correct for everyone to earn a four-year degree.
Indeed, there can be a stigma against pursuing options other than a four-year college. Beyond that, many jobs require a degree as a shorthand for the soft skills that serve any employee well. However, questioning high schoolers and even adults shouldn’t have to feel that there is only one path available to them for education beyond high school.
In fact, the opportunity cost associated with years of attending college may eclipse potential benefits—particularly for individuals unsure of their careers. A 2013 report found that only 27% of college graduates were pursuing an occupation related to their major. The report also found that location played a key role in determining career, with larger cities being more favorable environments for college graduates seeking employment—with a match being 30% more likely.
For many, a more technical path may be best. In the past several decades, skilled trades have arguably gone out of style, with a growing and more sophisticated, service oriented economy Many are staying employed for longer, but there’s a need for many skills that don’t require a college degree as more of the population retires.
Practicing a trade allows a young person to launch right into on-the-job experience and circumvent the comprehensive but lengthy process of earning a college degree. In a world where technology is increasingly deified, we’re finding that the need for skilled labor has not gone away. Many of these careers are lucrative; some can make six figure annual pay
In a similar vein, earning certifications in relevant skills can be a legitimate path for those with a defined vision for their careers. Online training programs have improved in quality in recent years. To that effect, many occupations, such as coding, care less about your degree and more about the skills you bring to the job. For other trades, an apprenticeship is a potential avenue for gaining experience to get a start in the industry. The beauty of any of these approaches is in their flexibility to professionals based on personal motivation and ambitions.
That’s not to say that there aren’t challenges inherent in options other than a four-year college degree —barriers to entry are often higher. But, like any investment, alternatives to college have their pros and cons. The supremacy of the four-year-degree is rooted in the notion that all of the most relevant industries require college experience, but plenty of paths—realty, culinary arts, physical therapy, plumbing, to name a few—do not.
And when all else fails, a questioning professional can choose to take time doing something else. Whether volunteering or working another job, there’s no shame in taking time to ponder one’s options and figure out career trajectory. In fact, the average person changes jobs 12 times during his or her career. Career hopping is more feasible than ever with the glut of nontraditional education options, and a successful change often hinges on the individual’s ability to evaluate the costs and benefits involved.
Jonathan F. Foster
Founder & Managing Director – Current Capital Partners LLC