What are you looking for?

Photographed by Michelle Drewes

Is It Time To Re-Think College?



For the better part of the twentieth century, the four-year college (henceforth here referred to simply as college) has been the drumbeat of upward economic mobility; college, college, college. With little discussion of alternatives, college has become synonymous with success. It is the desired and encouraged successor to high school, to such an overwhelming degree that a culture of snobbery has formed around anything less. The resulting national Cult of the College is based on the belief that you go to college (you presumably graduate), and then you are granted by the divine economic and generous gods a comfortable upper-middle class life.

In terms of salary, the belief holds water, even post-Great Recession. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s (EPI) annual analysis of the labor market and graduating class, college graduates will make emphatically more money than their less-educated counterparts; eight dollars more per hour, on average.

But, considerable debt and an uncertain (at best), saturated (in reality) labor market coupled with a growing need for more trade professionals in the U.S. workforce have left some economists to reconsider the preeminence of college in post-Great Recession America.

The Class of 2016 matriculated with an average of $33,000 in debt. That is a lot of money for a 22-year-old to shoulder. The unemployment rate for the recent graduates hovers, respectably, at 5%, but nearly half of those with jobs are overqualified for their position (i.e. the post-college jobs they get don’t require a college degree).

The most prestigious private universities today are asking upwards of $65,000 a year in tuition (including room and board). With such price tags, even parents of young children are told ad nauseum that it is never too early to start saving for college. Perhaps you are currently gestating a member of the Class of 2039, you may well be wondering, “How much is this kid going to cost me?” The College Board has a nifty (read: depressing) tool for such daydreaming. Spoiler alert: you could buy your kid a bucolic farm in Vermont for the price of sending one child to college. For a baby born this year, it is estimated that a private four-year institution will cost $102,000 a year. In-state tuition will be at about half. Today’s babies will cost their parents anywhere from $200,000-$400,000 in tuition.

Right on the heels of the Great Recession, having just inherited a country in economic tatters, President Obama was addressing Congress for the first time and he implored, “Tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But, whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.”

Nine years out of the Great Recession and the Ivory Tower is still sending nearly half of her graduates into jobs they could have had before they swaddled themselves in debt. In the New York Times last year, Richard Vedder, founder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, is quoted in support of alternatives (emphasis added), “It is true that we need more nanosurgeons than we did 10 to 15 years ago, but the numbers are still relatively small compared to the numbers of nurses’ aides we’re going to need. We will need hundreds of thousands of them over the next decade.”

The jobs for the hyper-educated are finite. We can’t all have them, and we don’t all want them. Instead of a sea of liberal arts grads clamoring for barista jobs, what if alternative education was held with the same reverence as college? Let’s return to the other options Obama reminded us of in 2009:

Community College: Two-year colleges allow you to graduate with an associate’s degree. Students can transfer their credits into a four-year college should they want to (having thusly saved two years of expense). The average price for a normal course load at a community college is $3,300 a year. Compare that to NYU’s annual tuition of $48,000 for tuition and an additional $17,500 for room and board. Instead, you could pay Mom and Dad rent, use their toaster oven, their washing machine, and stream from their Netflix account for two more years, while you save your family a small fortune on tuition.

Vocational Training: Commonly referred to as “Trade Schools”, these are similarly priced to community colleges, but focus on a particular field. If you dream of waking up before dawn to bake pastries, look into culinary school. If you are passionate about medicine, apply to nursing schools. There is a seemingly infinite list of trades and their corresponding schools.

Apprenticeships: This is by far the most seldom explored option for a high school grad. The Department of Labor provides a formal, registered apprenticeship program. Apprenticeships are a practice dating as early as 12th Century in Britain. Today’s apprenticeships have some key differences to their predecessors (they are less indentured in nature), but the idea of shadowing a master is timeless.

Lawrence Mishel of the EPI concludes in his blog, “The width of the path to the middle class is narrower than many people think: …A four-year college degree is not the panacea that many people think it is.” Is it maybe time to reconsider the Cult of College?

What do you think? Did you go to a four-year college? If you did, would you do it differently if given the opportunity? Would you rather still have that money and invested it in your career in some other way?

Mothers with young kids, do you dream of your kids in your alma mater’s hoodie? Mothers of high-schoolers, how are you addressing your child’s next step?

Write a Comment

Share this story