Let’s Face It: Not Everyone Needs a College Degree

With high rates of underemployment among college graduates, maybe it’s time to rethink the idea that college is an absolute requirement

Jun 29, 2014 at 10:00AM

Flickr / gadgetdude.

It's conventional wisdom these days that a four-year college degree is a must-have in today's finicky workaday world, and there is plenty of data to back it up. Government data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that median weekly pay last year for those with bachelor's degrees was $1,108, compared to $777 for an associate's degree, and $651 for high school graduates.

But, there are drawbacks: high student loan debt and underemployment, to name just two. Also, there is the fact that many people just don't feel inclined to go to college. Wouldn't it be great if there were some alternatives?

Growing evidence supports the theory that success can be attained without a four-year college diploma – although an associate's degree or some type of post-high school training is needed.

Two-year and four-year degrees both have value
A new study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows that, despite declining wages for college graduates over the past decade, the economic return for a college degree – either two-year or four-year – is an impressive 15%. The biggest reason for this phenomenon is that, even though college degree holders have lost ground since the Great Recession, those with only a high school diploma have suffered even more.

What about that wage disparity between bachelor's and associate's degrees? The FRBNY authors looked at 40 years' worth of data, and found that both degrees have always produced equal returns – on a relative basis. For instance, while a bachelor's degree still "costs" between $100,000 and $130,000, a two-year degree has associated costs of between $40,000 and $60,000.

These figures include real expenses, as well as "opportunity costs", which is lost wages during one's college career. Even though college costs have risen over the past decade, pay for high school graduates has dropped so much that the overall costs have remained the same.


Flickr / Simon Allardice.

Opportunities abound
For those who prefer to forgo the four-year college experience, there are plenty of options available. Many professional occupations, such as dental hygienists and registered nurses, make between $55,000 and $75,000 per year armed with an associate's degree, while radiation therapists can make well over $75,000 with a two-year degree.  

If health care isn't your thing, some of those missing middle-skill jobs seem to be returning from the ashes of the recession – and employers are screaming for skilled workers to fill them. In Rochester, New York, 23,000 jobs are chronically unfilled because there are not enough community college graduates to fill them.

In New Jersey, unemployed four-year college graduates are being retrained to fill up to 50,000 mid-skill jobs in the state's manufacturing sector. In Houston, Texas, employers, banks, and community colleges are banding together to educate enough workers to fill the nearly 300,000 middle-skill jobs that the city expects to create within the next three years. 

As baby boomers retire, a whole section of skilled, well-paid trades jobs are opening up, as well. It is estimated that there are currently 3 million so-called "blue collar" jobs available in areas such as plumbing, welding, and electrical work. Many of these don't even require an associate's degree for entry. 

It's obvious that some training beyond high school is necessary to qualify for a good job, but a four-year degree isn't the only pathway to occupational success – especially if you choose a major with little career potential. Research the market before you start shopping for four-year colleges – you just might discover options you never knew existed.

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