A college education has been an instrumental part of the American dream. A university degree was the key to all of the other hallmarks of middle-class life–a steady 9 to 5 job in an office, the ability to save up for a down payment on a home and pay off a mortgage in 20 years, no major financial worries. In short, a college education symbolized the security and prosperity that many people aspire to.
However, the roadmap to a stable income and the good life has become blurry. Student debt, stagnant wages even for white-collar jobs, and the ability to earn a good income without attending a 4-year college are all reasons that going to college may yield diminishing returns.
The Specter of Student Debt
The price of a college education has skyrocketed, and there is little wonder that the issue of student loan debt is a hotly contested political issue. The cost of college has increased 25% over the last decade. According to College Board statistics, an in-state four-year college will cost $107,280, and the total bill for a private college or university is $219,520.
Although many insist that this debt can be paid back by the higher income jobs that college graduates can get, that depends on the major and the type of career the graduate chooses. For example, medicine and law can yield six-figure salaries, but of course, these careers require more expensive education. Medical school, law school, and MBA programs, however, are high price tag programs that are often paid off.
Many Well-Paying Careers Do Not Require a College Degree
However, a bachelor’s degree by itself doesn’t have the earning power it once did. In addition, many students choose humanities majors over math, science, and technology, which earns them $7,000 less annually. The average salary for those holding an undergraduate degree was $63,000.
However, jobs that do not require a college degree can earn as much or ever more than that. Police officers earn an average of $67,000, contractors can earn $70,000 to $90,000, and a registered nurse can earn between $60,000 to $90,000 depending on the region and the area with just an associate’s degree.
It is no wonder why more people are ditching the idea of a four-year college, especially since 62% of graduates start life with a burdensome amount of debt and instead set their sights on careers that will bring in steady incomes without the debt burden. In addition, many tech jobs which pay large salaries require extensive training but not necessarily an expensive bachelor’s degree.
The Gig Economy
Be your own boss, work in your free time, turn your hobby into a career. These all sound terrific and are slogans in the gig economy. However, there is a much darker side to all of these hopeful sayings. It wasn’t too long ago that a person could graduate from college, get a job in an office and stay with the company for decades until retirement.
Now companies are treating workers like any other expense. To cut costs, they often downsize their workforce. This means graduates have to face an increasingly competitive job market where they could land a job but not a career they can feel confident about because there is always a chance they will be the target of downsizing.
In addition, wages have not kept up with inflation. According to the Pew Research Center, the purchasing power of the average US consumer has not moved at all in 40 years. Wages since the 2007-2008 financial crisis are increasing at a much lower rate. The result is that Americans have to work harder to make the same amount, or if they have fixed wages, their spending power is less. This means taking a second or a third job to enjoy the same standard of living as their parents did.
Naturally, many young people look at the amount of debt they will accrue going to college to land a job that may not be secure if the company decides to cutbacks and may not be that much more than they would make without a college degree. So there is little wonder that many younger people have decided to go to trade schools or technical schools or learn online rather than attend a four-year college.
Many people also believe that college has become its own culture and is less focused on educating students. Many high school graduates want to take a year off to get real-life work experience before deciding whether to go to college and which one to go to. Adults should give their kids some space to make these decisions. College should not be an obligation or an automatic decision but requires attention and consideration.