Does a traditional college degree give students the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century?

By Tom Moore
Contributing Writer

 Graphic courtesy of http://college-education.procon.org/. Source: Project on Student Debt, “State by State Data,” www.projectonstudentdebt.org (Oct. 14, 2013).

Graphic courtesy of http://college-education.procon.org/.
Source: Project on Student Debt, “State by State Data,” www.projectonstudentdebt.org (Oct. 14, 2013).

SATs, ACTs, GEDs and high school diplomas … navigating the road to life’s success can be quite the challenge. Especially when you are only 18.

The terms “success” and “The American Dream” have been used to describe the age-old definitions and expectations placed on high school graduates all across the country. “Go to college, get a degree, and get a good job with benefits, buy a home, live the dream” – this has been the advice of parents to their teenagers for decades. But what do those words really mean, and is a college degree the best way to find your own flavor of “success”?

“It really depends on what you want to do with your life,” Sky Braswell, a University of West Florida junior, said. “I have a friend who always hated school. She just wants to be a waitress for the rest of her life.”

A lot of people think that the earning power of a bachelor’s degree has been diminished in recent years, but, according to the Wall Street Journal, someone with a bachelor’s degree will make, on average, nearly $600 to $1,000 more per week than someone with a high school diploma. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the average college graduate with a bachelor’s degree is likely to have about $45,000 to $60,000 dollars of student loan debt that goes with that higher earning potential. After graduation, an initial six-month grace period allows students time to land their career job and get financially situated. When the monthly payments start, the average college graduate may be paying from $375 to $450 a month to service student loans. To support this cost and live a comfortable, middle class, American life, the average college graduate may need to find a job with an annual salary of about $67,000.

“It depends on what area of study you want to go into,” Kaitlyn Helton, a psychology major, said. “There are simply some degrees that aren’t worth the payout, and there are others where you can start making money immediately, such as computer science [or] most STEM-related degrees,” Helton said.

In the 1970s, state governments supplied nearly 75 percent of funding for public colleges, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. In 2012, researchers found that tuition exceeded state funding at public colleges, according to The Washington Post. State funding fell nine percent during this time. The 2008 collapse of financial markets forced the government to make cuts. Higher education took a hit with a sharp decline to state contributions. To pick up the slack, universities have had to hike tuition in order to cover operating costs.

Free federal aid for low-income students hasn’t kept up either. In 1980, the Pell Grant program awarded 77 percent of four-year public university tuition costs to qualified students. By 2011, the grant amount had fallen to 36 percent. A decrease in government support to state universities leaves colleges few options but to increase tuition; a decrease of available aid makes paying for college an ever-increasing burden on students and families.

I say no, it’s not worth it,” Bridgette Rockette, UWF alumna who graduated in communications, said. “I believe it was a mistake for me to go through college, even though I made it through without any debt. All of my career advances, in a field totally different from my degree, have come from networking and the technical skills I learned in the National Guard, not my degree.”

“The technical skills I learned” – maybe she is on to something. Today much emphasis is placed on high school students to enroll in college, get a degree and aspire for that corner office leaving fewer and fewer people with the skills needed to construct that coveted corner office. Carpenters, contractors, electricians, welders and pipefitters are just a few of the skilled people our workforce is sorely lacking. Not only can you learn these skills at a fraction of the cost of a bachelor’s degree, but also you can be certified in six weeks to nine months, as opposed to the four to five years it takes to complete a bachelor’s degree.

Dellotte Consulting LLP and the Manufacturing Institute reported that in 2011 alone, 80 percent of manufacturers were unable to find enough skilled workers. This shortage of American skilled labor left 600,000 highly paid, blue-collar manufacturing jobs unfilled. According to the report, “The workforce segments that are hardest to fill are those that impact operations the most, and require the most extensive training.”

Back in our parents’ and grandparents’ day, the company would find a promising young worker and groom him or her for the position, training them to have the necessary skills for the position. Unfortunately, these days companies and workers alike have a much more short-term approach to company and worker loyalty. Companies are no longer willing to spend thousands of dollars and six months to a year to train their workers to do these highly specialized jobs. They want to hire workers who already are equipped with the necessary skills. Unfortunately, this shortsighted approach on the part of our nation’s corporations has left a worker shortage that we as a country are hard-pressed to fill. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, only 27 percent of all jobs between 2014 and 2022 will require a college degree. The other 73 percent of all jobs will not require any more than an associate’s degree. Skilled manufacturing jobs are good, middle-class, well-paying jobs worth $50,000 a year or more. (See sources cited at end.)

Reflect back to the original question, does “success” require a college degree? The answer depends upon your definition of “success.”  If success means becoming a doctor, scientist, engineer, or business person, then pursue the college degree. However, if success is a bit broader – to make enough to live comfortably, buy a home and support a family – then pursue an alternative career choice and learn a skilled trade.

 

Sources:

  1. “Recent grads are doubting college’s worth.” Douglas Belkin, WSJ.com, Sept 29, 2015

 

  1. Is College Worth It? Clearly, New Data Say.” David Leonhardt, New York Times, May 27, 2014

 

  1. Is college worth it? Goldman Sachs says not so much.” Brooke Metz, USA Today, Dec. 10, 2015

 

  1. “Is college worth the money?” http://content.time.com/time/interactive/0,31813,2072670,00.html

“Job U: How to Find Wealth and Success by Developing the Skills Companies Actually Need.” Nicholas Wyman, Crown Publishing Group, 2015