Three Reasons Why a Four-Year Degree Isn’t Always Worth It

The encouragement of a college education begins as early as middle school. Eighth graders take the PSAT to be evaluated for college readiness, to see scholarship opportunities and to prepare for taking the SAT. College Board even hosts college information nights at middle schools to share tips for improving PSAT and SAT scores prior to the junior year of high school. 

Being prepared for college is a great idea — we should absolutely ensure our children understand the ins and outs of attaining a college degree.  

But is a college degree always worth it?  

Here are three reasons why a college degree should not be the only career path recommended to our students:  

1. A 2015 survey found that the most important reasons students choose to pursue a four-year degree is for a high-paying job. Obviously, financial security is a priority for the majority of us and college is seen as the primary way to find that stability.   

Yet only 59 percent of those entering college will earn a bachelor’s degree within 6 years, and many of them will graduate with a nice chunk of student debt. In fact, one in four Americans owe student debt, which currently totals $1.5 trillion. The average student debt is over $37,000 and climbing — a number that seems low to many. 

What are other options to starting a career without substantial debt? Discover More, a resource for educators, administrators, counselors and parents, outlines a few … 

Career and technical education (CTE). CTE prepares secondary, postsecondary and even adult students with skills needed in the workplace. Even more, students in advanced CTE classes in high school receive higher earnings.  

Beginning even in middle school, CTE programs help prepare students for a variety of high-wage, high-skill and high-demand careers, from IT to health care to construction. While many of you may be familiar with CTE classes, we need to ensure that these programs are getting just as much endorsement at secondary schools as a university path.  

Jennifer Wilkerson, a former English teacher for 13 years and mother of two, is an advocate of CTE and shares, “I see a generation of middle and high schoolers thirsty to be part of something bigger and searching for opportunities to succeed. The skills learned in CTE, especially in correlation with the construction industry provides just this — endless opportunities for people to use their minds and talents to build the world.” 

Apprenticeships. Apprenticeships are the ultimate “earn while you learn” training program. With the average age of apprentices at 27, we need to introduce this option to students and young people much earlier.    

Apprenticeships last anywhere from one to six years, and an apprentice starts out making a percentage of an experienced worker’s wage which then increases throughout training. Apprenticeships provide valuable training on the job, which gives apprentices a real look at what their chosen career will entail. Many companies pay all or the majority of the education and training that apprentices undergo, letting the apprentices complete the apprenticeships with little-to-no debt, while having gained valuable hands-on experience and connections in their chosen field

Technical or community colleges. Not all college degrees are created equal … the annual tuition and fees for a community college is $3,570 compared to $9,970 for a public university. That’s 64 percent savings!  

Technical schools and certification programs offer a shorter time spent in school with certifications that apply directly to careers once graduating. Many of these programs take one to two years to complete, with tangible skills achieved and minimal debt incurred.  

Take Holley Thomas for example: After finishing a community college program, Thomas began working as an entry-level welder making $55,000 a year. Now, 11 years later, her salary has more than tripled as a project principal quality inspector at KBR.

2. 1:2:7 — Only one job out of ten requires a master’s degree or higher. Two out of ten need a bachelor’s degree. And the remaining seven? These only need an associate degree, certification or credential. 

A popular misconception is that we live in a time where most well-paying jobs require (at least) a college degree, and where getting one of those requires a significant portion of young people to essentially forego owning their own home (part of the much venerated ‘American Dream’) for years and years.” In fact, well-paying jobs are readily available, without forgoing home ownership or vacations or new vehicles.  

One industry that provides sustainable and lucrative careers that is often overlooked is construction. CareerBuilder and Indeed both listed construction positions as some of best jobs to get ahead in 2018. The industry is estimated to need 1.4 million skilled craft professionals by 2022 and with 41 percent of the current construction workforce set to retire by 2031, opportunities are only growing.  

In fact, multiple careers in construction make a national average salary (without overtime, per diem or incentives) over $65,000 and do not require a four-year degree: boilermaker, mobile crane operator, millwright, industrial electrician, and welder, just to name a few.  

Additionally, management jobs in the construction industry are going to be impacted even more severely by the Baby Boomers retiring, leaving the door wide open for craft professionals to grow their careers — 67 percent of the seasoned construction management is due to retire by 2031. Because construction is mostly performance-driven, you are the determining factor in how far you climb the ladder of success.  

Boyd Worsham is a great example: Worsham started as an apprentice directly out of high school, worked his way up to become a journeyman carpenter, foreman, assistant superintendent, superintendent and finally the vice president of construction support for The Haskell Company and is now the president of an international education foundation, NCCER.

3. Forty-six percent of U.S. employers are having a difficult time hiring because they can’t find the skills that they actually need in the workforce. The push for a four-year degree is not filling the skills gap that our nation is facing. 

Despite offering great salaries, many of the most in-demand jobs are not only overlooked but rarely shared as viable options or are only presented as ‘if you can’t succeed in the academic world’ jobs. These careers are made fun of in TV shows — remember the SNL skit poking fun at project managers? Or construction workers only shown as grubby catcallers on the side of the road? They paint a picture of jobs that people only pick when they can’t find anything else. But let’s take a minute to consider the skills a career — and not just a job — in construction really entails.     

Pipefitters calculate as many, if not more, mathematical equations in a typical workday then an engineer. Welders have to make sure their welds are up to holding up beams that support tons of weight – and I literally mean tons as a measurement and not figuratively. Electricians have to understand complicated systems and electrical components, as well as stay up-to-date on national, state and local codes.   

Craft professionals are often subject to negative classifications including the stigmatized label of a blue-collar industry. Blue-collar and white-collar careers remain pitted against one another and a path toward a blue-collar career is undoubtedly portrayed as the less desirable choice. If you have ever tried to construct, install or repair any number of complicated projects in or on your own home, you know that highly trained professionals are anything but replaceable. Instead, they are essential to the longevity and functionality of the places we cherish most. These misguided terms used to describe craft professionals fail to represent the rigorous training, credentials, professionalism and strong work ethic belonging to the individual underneath the hard hat. By referring to them as anything other than highly skilled professionals, we are ultimately devaluing the work they do and decreasing the appeal of entering these careers.   

Ultimately, what do we want for our students? Would we want to only focus on achieving the academic degree or rather see them succeed in a path that they may not have considered? Happiness should top the list — students should find a career that they are satisfied, happy and successful in, regardless if a four-year degree is required or not.  

And construction workers are happy. The 2015 Best Industry Ranking Report published by TINYpulse, surveyed more than 500 organizations and over 30,000 employees across 12 distinct industries and found that construction workers are the happiest employees. 

Why wouldn’t they be? Financial success, career progression, becoming highly skilled aside, craft professionals take pride in their work. They are building the world — the hospitals we go to, the roads we take, the houses we live in. Everything in our world begins with construction. 

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Rachel Burris

Rachel Burris is the communications manager at NCCER. She has over six years’ experience in communications and public relations, including writing...