Last September, almost twenty million students enrolled in colleges across the United States . That’s a nearly twenty-five percent increase in enrollment from twenty years ago, and a sixty percent increase over the last fifty years .
The idea that you must go to college and get a degree in order to be successful in life is as ingrained in American culture as watching football on Sundays. For some students, however, college may not be the right path. Getting a four-year degree requires a tonne of support and access to resources, and there are many students out there who are capable of “making something of themselves” without it .
The Steep Cost of Higher Education
The average cost of college tuition in the United States has increased by 150 percent in just the last forty years. Last year, the cost to attain a four-year degree from a public institution cost over 83 thousand dollars, and nearly 190 thousand dollars at a private school .
As it turns out, this so-called “guaranteed path to success”, is not quite as guaranteed as our parents and teachers once thought. While the cost of college tuition has been growing by about 2.6 percent each year since the eighties, wages have only increased by a mere 0.3 percent per year .
Previous generations were able to work a part-time job to afford tuition and graduate with little to no debt, but today’s students are facing a much different reality. In fact, with minimum wage at 7.25 dollars per hour, the average student would have to work almost thirteen hours a day, every single day in order to graduate debt-free . Student loans in the United States now make up a greater percentage of the total U.S. debt than credit cards and car loans , and graduates are struggling to find work to pay their debt off. As of 2018, almost half of all recent college graduates were either unemployed or underemployed [5,6]. The term underemployed refers to anyone who is working less than full-time, or who is working a job that is below their training or economic needs .
Not Everyone Needs College
The reality is, college is not the right fit for everyone, and it’s not necessary for everyone, either. Some may have other goals, like learning to write code or start a business. Some may want to go to cosmetology school or work in television or become a truck driver or a mechanic [2, 8]. And guess what? None of these require a four-year bachelor’s degree.
The average cost of vocational schools in the United States is $33 thousand, a significant drop from college tuition . These schools often bypass the general education and elective courses required in four-year college programs, and focus on training students to work in the fields they want to be in .
Many jobs now require specialized training in technology that bachelor’s programs are too broad to address. For this reason, many college graduates end up enrolling in vocational schools after completing a four-year degree anyways .
Many people, unfortunately, regard vocational school as a secondary option if college doesn’t work out.
“It is considered a second choice, second-class. We really need to change how people see vocational and technical education,” Patricia Hsieh, the president of a community college in the San Diego area .
College Professor Rachel Garlinghouse has come across many students during her career who were only in college because it was their parents’ desire as opposed to their own. She wishes more parents and teachers would be more open to other options that would be a better fit for their children.
“This what-I-say-goes attitude was — and is — hurting young adults. I often wondered how many of them were truly gifted in a particular area, but we’re wasting time and money in college classrooms. Some of them clearly needed to be in hands-on learning environments, unconfined by walls and desks.” 
Paying Too Much for Too Little
The general message that many trade schools are sending out is that the amount of debt students are taking on in order to achieve that coveted bachelor’s degree is not worth it . While there is some validity to that, the important message is that the type of education provided at a college may not but what every student needs.
For some, a bachelor’s degree is absolutely the right choice, but for many other students across the country, a two-year trade school diploma is more than enough for them to find meaningful, enjoyable work. It is important for people who are parents, teachers, and mentors to high school students that they encourage them to explore all their options and make the best choice for their careers.
- “College enrollment in the United States from 1965 to 2018 and projections up to 2029 for public and private colleges.” Statista.
- “College Isn’t For Every Young Adult–And It’s Time Parents Accept It.” Scary Mommy. Rachel Garlinghouse. December 15, 2019.
- “ Average Cost of College in America.” Value Penguin. Justin Song. January 11, 2021.
- “Price Of College Increasing Almost 8 Times Faster Than Wages.” Forbes. Camilo Maldonado. July 24, 2018.
- “Percentage of recent college graduates in the United States who are underemployed as of July 2020, by major.” Statista.
- “Unemployment rate 2.1 percent for college grads, 3.9 percent for high school grads in August 2018.” BLS. September 12, 2018.
- “Underemployment.” Merriam Webster.
- “The Average Cost of Vocational School in USA 2020.” Vocational Training. Scott Miller. January 1, 2020.
- “The Stigma of Choosing Trade School Over College.” The Atlantic. Meg St-Esprit. March 6, 2019.