When your grandparents, and probably your parents, were just starting out, there was one perceived path to success and prosperity: a college education.
But over the past few years, questions have arisen as to whether a four-year degree is a requirement for a career, and they’ve only gotten louder amid the COVID-19 pandemic as we’ve seen people not only survive but thrive by launching their own businesses or taking part in the gig economy.
So, do students really need to go straight from high school to college — and take on potentially considerable debt along the way — to have a prosperous career, especially now as companies are desperate to hire workers as the economic recovery continues? We asked people in the business and education communities, and they had interesting thoughts that fell into different categories: yes to a degree, no to a degree and following a hybrid model.
Amrit Ahluwalia, editor in chief of The EvoLLLution, an online newspaper focused on nontraditional higher education and the transforming postsecondary marketplace, cast a strong “yes” vote.
“A college degree has immense and lasting value, as long as it’s pursued for the right reasons,” Ahluwalia said. “College graduates generally earn higher salaries over their lifetimes than those without degrees, which is largely because these credentials are prerequisites to management roles and other high-earning career paths.”
Patricia A. Roberts, the author of “Route 529: A Parent’s Guide to Saving for College and Career Training with 529 Plans,” said a college degree is a valuable asset, as long as it is achieved smartly.
“One of the best ways to avoid or minimize student loan debt is to prepare for the cost of higher education in advance, to pursue grants and scholarships in the years leading up to high school graduation and to select institutions that are both a good fit and which have an affordable net cost based on a student’s unique circumstances,” she said.
Ahluwalia agreed with that. He said students must find programs that are priced within their means and have success in preparing students to align with their goals.
“While 58% of students enroll in degree programs to achieve career outcomes, 41% are underemployed after graduation,” he said. “This is generally because students take on so much debt to attend their dream schools that they take whatever job they can get to begin paying down their loans, leading to underemployment cycles.”
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Lyle Solomon, a Northern California attorney who counsels clients with student loan debt, said he sees a degree as valuable but doesn’t think it’s necessary to jump right into college after high school.
“One thing a degree will always offer is that it sets you apart from others in applicants. While a degree is becoming less necessary, it is still beneficial,” Solomon said. “Student loan debt is certainly an issue. I recommend that rather than students heading straight to college, to gain an initial valuable set of skills to gain employment while going to college. This way, you can look for an employer that will reimburse some expenses and your employment can be used to pay bills in place of loans”
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Tomy Boboy, the founder of Everyday Finance, is among those who say experience beats education when it comes to career success.
“The only pro I see from my time in college is the personal growth I experienced,” Boboy said. “Getting to interact with people from different cultural backgrounds and even my time studying abroad really changed my perspective on life.
“I went to a four-year private school and graduated with a degree in finance and international business. Looking back I’ve realized that I’ve had more success learning by doing rather than sitting in a classroom. I believe that most people don’t need to go into a four-year university.
“The whole idea of higher education in the past was that by you entering college you would be able to get a higher-paying job than would be the case if you joined the workforce straight out of high school. That’s no longer the case.”
Plus, Boboy said, there are other avenues to consider, such as trade schools and apprenticeships that could lead to a successful career without four years of college. The path you ultimately choose depends on your goals.
“The biggest job market trends I’ve noticed are in folks that are getting into trades — carpenters, electricians, plumbers, etc.,” he said. “I think these are where you can see the most bang for your buck. Instead of spending four years indebting yourself, you’re now able to get into an apprenticeship and earn money while learning.”