Why College Isn’t for Everyone

Dear Mr. Dad: My 16-year-old son has been talking for a while about what he plans to do after he graduates high school. Everyone in my family has at least one degree so I just assumed he’d be going to college too. As we’ve discussed his plans, though, it’s becoming clear that they don’t include college. I’m trying to encourage him to at least do some research on programs, look into financial aid, and start sending out applications. But he thinks there’s no point in it. How important is higher education today?

A: Pretty important—and getting more important every day. That said, the traditional 4-year college route isn’t for everyone—and it shouldn’t be. Let me start with the pro-college argument:

Right now, nearly 70 percent of high school grads go on to college. And I expect that number to rise as the world economy becomes more global and we find ourselves competing not only with fellow Americans, but with highly trained professionals all over the world. As the education level of the job pool increases, many employers who, a few years ago, might have been happy hiring someone right out of high-school are now demanding a college degree.

There’s also a direct correlation between education and earning power. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average full-time worker with only a high-school diploma earns about $33,000 per year. Add a little college (but not a degree), and income goes up to $37,000/year, while an Associate’s degree brings in about $40,000. The big bump comes for people with Bachelor’s degrees: nearly $55,000/year. In addition, graduates from 4-year colleges are twice as likely to have a job than those who didn’t. They’re also more likely to have health insurance.

Okay, now here’s the college-degrees-aren’t-all-they’re-cracked-up-to-be argument:

Despite what we’ve heard about the high unemployment rate and the number of people who’ve given up looking for jobs, half of U.S. employers have job openings they can’t fill, according to the ManpowerGroup 2012 annual Talent Shortage Survey. And five of the top ten hardest-to-fill jobs don’t require a four-year degree. These include skilled trades (such as plumbers and electricians), drivers (taxi, truck, limo, etc.), mechanics, machine operators, and nurses.

You may have dreamed that your son would be a doctor or lawyer or bond trader, but college is by no means the only place to get an education—and for some, it can actually be a waste of time and money. The big question is, What are your son’s interests and talents?

Is he interested in any of the hard-to-fill jobs above or others that may not require a Bachelor’s, such as being a painter, dental, hygienist, web designer, real estate broker, police officer, mail carrier, crop duster, martial artist, chef, or firefighter? If so, getting some specialized training will definitely help him in the long run. That’s why I strongly suggest that you both consider technical and vocational schools as well Associate’s degree programs at junior colleges, which can help him build on those skills and interests. You might also want to think about the military, which often offers some of the best training in the world—and pays you to learn. In most cases, the coursework will be focused on acquiring and mastering skills for a particular job or career. That’s definitely not the case with a regular college.

The most important thing—whether your son goes the college route or not—is to keep learning and improving. Many of the jobs that will be essential in just a few years probably don’t even exist today.

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