Are there Alternatives to College Careers?

In the 1990s and early 2000s no one was seriously questioning the sustainability of large price increases in housing, or the integrity of the mortgages they secured. The same was true of the stock market in the 1980s, in the 1990s, the early 2000s, or even today. As we’ve seen in each case, that level of certainty is often the last step before a crisis. A similar level of faith continues to exist in the assumed value of a college education and in the student loan debt commonly used to obtain it. Yet people continue to flock to college without ever seriously considering if there are alternatives to college careers.

21st Century quandary: a college education has risks!

A college degree has value, and will continue to in the future — I have one myself. But the problem is that a college education today carries risks that it didn’t just a decade or two ago:

  1. The spectacular rise in the cost of college can leave a student and his family burdened by debt for years into the future; for the student that debt could impair future career mobility.
  2. Technology and off-shoring of jobs means a real risk that either employment in a given degree field will be limited or that pay will be less than expected
  3. Opportunity cost of non-college fields not pursued

Are there Alternatives to College Careers?
Are there Alternatives to College Careers?
None of these may be an issue for a well-to-do family with plentiful resources and numerous options, but many middle class families have come to fully expect that money paid for their children’s higher education will pay off, and usually pretty quickly.

While degrees in fields like medicine and engineering may continue to be “money in the bank”, sending a child to college to pursue a less technical degree with the hope that he’ll somehow find his niche may be a luxury many families can no longer afford.

What are the alternatives to college careers?

You’ve heard the investment disclaimer, “past performance is not a guarantee of future returns”? It should now apply to careers. The fact that a given career field was a prosperous one in the recent past doesn’t mean it will continue to be in the future.

The pattern of careers in the last few years has been one of perpetual change. As noted above, technology and off-shoring of jobs and industries means many careers are no longer the safe havens they once were. Though insecurity has become the order of the day in a variety of fields, the greatest damage occurs in the ones that cost the most to enter, which are generally those in the college norm.

What careers or career skills could a young person consider in lieu of college?

Skilled trades and some non-degree jobs are always in demand

There was once an unquestioned assumption that recessions and depressions would take down blue collar jobs, but a well educated white collar employee would always be safe. That assumption is increasingly weak.

Many of the skilled trades are now providing more stable employment—and often at higher pay—than the white collar jobs so many eagerly seek. Part of the reason for this is that skilled trades require that the worker be physically present. Another is that the flood of young people into colleges and universities has thinned the ranks of those who might otherwise pursue the trades.

An article on CNNMoney reported the following six non-degree careers that can pay six figures, with median and top pay levels for each:

Fire Chief, $72,900; $121,000
Air Traffic Controller, $83,700; $159,000
Nuclear Power Reactor Manager, $86,200; $128,000
Director of Security, $68,700; $123,000
Elevator Mechanic, $72,900; $109,000
Court Reporter, $57,200; $105,000

This is a short list, but if you think about everyone you know and what they do for a living, you can come up with more non-college occupations to add to this list.

Preparing for life as an Entrepreneur

In many respects, self-employment is the ultimate career solution. People who can earn a living from their own business never need anyone to give them a job. And if you can earn your own living, credentials—including higher education—are generally less important than when you’re competing against a large pool of others for a limited number of traditional jobs. With job security slipping into largely myth status, encouraging young people to prepare for self employment may be the most responsible advice we can give.

Critical question: does college actually prepare students for self-employment?

My sense is no. On balance, college trains students for life in the corporate realm. Largely judged on post graduate job placement rates, schools facilitate, attract and encourage on-site recruiting by large organizations. Curriculum is often based on the needs of these organizations. Training for a career in self-employment or in a small business, if it does take place, seems mostly incidental.

Not only is this poor preparation for self-employment, but it can also serve as a hindrance. Training in organizational behavior and psychology leave the graduate unprepared for a career based on self reliance and risk taking, two crucial aspects of self employment.

How do you prepare for self employment if not through college?

  • Learn a trade – hands on skills often convert readily into self employment, and can be acquired through technical schooling and/or paid apprenticeship
  • Acquire sales experience – academicians generally look down on sales, but no matter what skill or product you have, the ability to sell it to the end user is the most critical difference between an employee and the owner of the business; on the job training is the best preparation for this
  • Work for a small business – the smaller the business, the more involved with big picture of a business and the closer you are to its customer base, the greater the likelihood of starting your own business; partnership in- or acquisition of- the business are also possibilities
  • Start a side business – a relatively low risk way of starting and growing a business; a venture started early in life could be expanded over time until it blooms into a full time career; trial and error — along with passion for the venture — will provide what formal education can’t

There’s a persistent belief—and one not entirely without justification—that not everyone is cut out to be self employed. I would agree that not everyone should plunge into their own business as a full time venture. But I also believe that if everyone who could be self-employed would be, the number of jobs available for those who can’t would increase substantially. Starting a side business is an excellent way for many to do this.

Do you believe that a college education is still the best path for most young people? What do you think of the alternatives I’ve presented? Can you think of any others?

( Photo courtesy of j.o.h.n. Walker )

20 Responses to Are there Alternatives to College Careers?

  1. Good article. I’ve also heard that plumbing is something lucrative to get into these days. Apparently, there aren’t as many guys going into it so the future looks good for someone young interested in plumbing. Especially as the population ages, older folks will pay for plumbing jobs instead of trying to do it themselves (speaking from experience as an older folk).

  2. Norm – I’ve heard that about plumbers as well. It’s a good field to go into as long as you aren’t focused on new construction. The guys who can fix what’s broke have better long term prospects than the ones who install new.

  3. Good points! I have always believed that college shouldn’t be an automatic step for all 18 year old kids. Going into a trade and developing a skill can lead to much more success than a 4 year degree. Hopefully, with the costs of college, more people will go back to considering that a real option!

  4. Khaleef – I agree with that college shouldn’t be automatic. At some level I think college has become something of an insurance policy, ie, if junior doesn’t really know what he wants to do with his life, and mom and dad aren’t sure either, just send him to college. The thinking is that what ever he settles on he’ll be better off with a degree. That may have been a good move in the past, but with college costing so much it’s no longer without risks. Plus there are no small number of grads who have soft or general degrees who either can’t find a job or can’t find one that pays a living wage.

    Maybe now it’s better if junior works for a couple of years, figures out what he wants, commits to the idea, and maybe is even in a position to pay part of the costs. All of that lowers the risk.

  5. Interesting list – I’m surprised to see air traffic controller on there. I thought there was a degree required for that.

  6. Jason – I was surprised at that one as well (nuclear power reactor manager too!). I don’t know much about either, but I’m thinking that in a culture where college has become the norm, we might be assuming degrees are required in fields where they aren’t. I’m always surprised at the number of people I know and meet who have jobs with above average earnings, but no degree.

  7. Obviously it depends on the industry. Doctors, dentists, and engineers will always need degrees to be able to practice in their field. There is a decline in tradespeople which makes for a higher demand.

  8. Everyone has to earn some money in order to carry on with their lives and plumbing seems to be a very profitable area, some people making quite significant amounts of money from this kind of work.

  9. The problem is that most high school does not talk about trade schools to graduating students as an alternative to college. Most of the time the high school are so focused on preparing the students for college and taking exams. I do not remember hearing anything about a trade school until AFTER I went to college.

    I heard that HVAC repairmen are also in demand.

    I know a few people who went to college and graduated with a soft degree and ended up as secretaries.

  10. asithi – I completely agree. It was that way when I was in high school, and it’s that way now with my kids. College, college, college. But we should expect that because high schools are part of “academia”–the education establishment. College they understand, trades they don’t, and self-employment even less.

    This is why it’s so important for parents to help guide kids in making career decisions, and why we need to be aware of the choices that are out there. As I wrote in the post, because of high costs and uncertain job prospects, college now has risks that it didn’t a couple of decades ago.

  11. I especially agree with your last point, that if everybody who’s capable of self-employment was to become self-employed, that would probably create more jobs. Also, that would reduce dependance on the large corporations which are more likely to ship their jobs to the Third World.

    Another reason why more people should be looking at alternatives to college is the fact that too many students are in college for the wrong reasons, ie, to party. Half of all freshmen will never graduate, and that wastes the money that has already been spent on them. The students who’ve taken out loans will have them fall due whether they graduate or not, and whether they can afford the loans or not.

  12. cpascal – I totally agree with you on the going-to-college-to-party thing. I find it disturbing to hear so many graduates speak endlessly of frat parties, tailgate parties and other drunken stupors as near-religious events in their lives, yet few can ever recall a course they took or a professor they had who might have had a significant impact on their lives or their thinking.

    It opens up a question, is college a place where you went to learn, or is it a very expensive and very protracted vacation?

  13. Some thoughts on college, Value and what occurs there from one of those with a softer major: I went to college immediately after High School because that was the proscribed thing to do. The general consensus was that if you wanted to be successful and get a “good job” College was necessary (But no one really ever defined what exactly a “Good job” was, seemingly). Over the course of 4 years, I chose a major that I believed (and really wanted to study) in only to realize towards the very end that it had little real world value. Worse still, I had spent four years working at any part time jobs or gigs available to help pay for expenses, rather than assembling and executing a useful, effective plan for the future. The result: Graduating with some debt and a degree with a value that was not at all equivalent to the money inputs. The problem is that the ability to think and critically analyze the value of certain things is not well taught, and only seems to come later on. Few of the professors have any real clue what it requires to survive in the real world. They speak endlessly of “tailoring your resume to what employers want” Yet seem to have no clue what that is if one really pressed them on the subject.

    Years have since passed. As far as the government and school system is confirmed, I am a success, as my income post college generates them more tax revenue than if I had not gone (supposedly). Meanwhile, the search for meaningful work and the ability to generate a good living remains a few steps ahead.

    I believe that I am not the problem, and only am guilty of a little uncertainty and indecision during my younger years. I believe the greater problem is the entire college system, which makes every effort to continually expand its market share more aggressively than many big companies offer their services. College may be technically a non-profit, but they are just as expansionary as any large business.

    Are there solutions to this? Many good ones. I have noticed a few on the oftwominds blog, but the sad thing with those is that every one is politically toxic because it would eviscerate the need for swarms of overpaid administrators and their gilded offices. No organized, public solutions may become doable until the whole student loan mess comes crashing in on itself. So for now, solutions will have to be individual and localized.

  14. Hi Jared – Your situation is all too common I’m afraid. And I completely agree, solutions will have to be individual and local – that’s what I tried to present in the article.

    I like your comment “The problem is that the ability to think and critically analyze the value of certain things is not well taught, and only seems to come later on.” – it’s not taught because the teaching of it wouldn’t support the desired outcome, which is that everyone “needs” to go to college. In this way the entire education system becomes self-perpetuating. It’s also being run by people who for the most part have no critical experience outside the system, and consider independent thinking to be dangerous. Education has become the classic ivory tower.

    I have to comment as well on your point about “non-profits”. Many of them, maybe most, are a farce. They may not be profit generating, but the profits come back to the managers and staffers through salaries. Anytime you have salaries and bureaucratic staff, you have financial motive (the system and the salaries within it must be preserved and advanced). This is how and why non-profits become mega organizations rivaling corporations in size and complexity. They develop along those lines for all the same reasons corporations do. Government is Exhibit A.

    Jared, you were duped, as millions of other young people have been. But hopefully the experience has taught you the virtue of independent thought and action, and their absolute necessity in the real world. We live in a world of illusions, where we’re constantly being taught the supremacy and superiority of the system, and always at our own peril.

  15. This post reminds me of a Frasier episode where they called a plumber who turned out to be the elementary school bully of their youth, who ended up dropping out of their elite prep school. He didn’t go to college, let alone Harvard. But by the end of the episode, the Crane brothers were mortified to learn that the plumber drove a more expensive Mercedes than they
    did and he was getting a new, more expensive one because he was giving his current one to his son who just got his driver’s license.

    I have much more respect for someone who chooses a trade school and becomes a
    plumber
    auto mechanic
    electrician
    construction laborer
    HVAC installer or repair
    chef
    many others I couldn’t possible list

    A friend of ours has a daughter who went to college and studied African studies. Not sure what she though she was going to do with that degree but upon graduation, no job prospects were in sight. So she doubled down and got her master’s degree in the field. Still no job and her comment was “I have all these degrees and all I’m qualified to be is a grill cook at Hardees.” What did she expect to do when she chose that degree? And what were her parents thinking allowing her to spend 6 years pursuing a curriculum that provided no employment possibilities? For heaven’s sake provide the girl with a little guidance. The end to that story is that she went back to school, became a registered nurse and had a job at a major hospital as soon as she completed her nursing program. She could have done that in four years, saved a ton of money and started earning a good income much much sooner. I know many people will tell you that college should just be about getting a future job, but they are living with rose colored glasses is this economic world.

  16. Hi Kathy – There’s not a single point in your comment that I disagree with. I think though to your point about “what are her parents thinking”, I have a couple of thoughts on this. It’s either parents who never went to college and don’t necessarily understand the value of one degree vs. another, or it’s parents who did go to college and remember back to the days when any degree was a door to a job somewhere (true up to about the 1990s).

    Both sets of parents are smitten by the idea of a college degree, to the point that they’ve blocked out reality. I also think that a lot of people still cling to the notion that the current job problems are temporary, mostly a hold-over from the Great Recession. From where I sit, the changes are permanent, and the choice of career fields will be nothing short of critical.

  17. Hi Kevin,

    A few additional thoughts your response has spurred:

    The entire college system is dependent on ever increasing loads of debt. However, the creation of debt is dependent on the present value of future income streams. So for example, I.M. Student goes to college and incurs $50,000 in debt when all is said and done. The assumption behind lending him the money in the first place is that when his schooling is complete, he will be capable of rapidly locating, securing and utilizing an income stream of sufficient size to both 1. Support himself 2. Pay a variety of taxes, some portion of which gets funneled back to the school systems, 3. Be a good little consumer, buying things, paying for services, and keeping the economy going round, and most important 4. Pay back those student loans (thus making some lender a nice boatload of risk-free profit, as I.M. Student may not declare bankruptcy and walk away ever.)

    Problem with this is that not every major or degree program creates enough value in the real world to be worth a nice fat salary to repay that debt. Take the Fine Arts, for example. A colleague of mine attended a reputable private university for the private arts, paying some $26k a year for 2-3 years. While he did take a good portion of his coursework at the local community college (vastly underrated, under-respected institutions, in my opinion) he still incurred severe student debt, Several years later, he has been unable to find a job with any kind of relation to said degree. So out of those 4 items above, his current income accomplishes 4, struggles to achieve 1, and all that taxable consumption? Forget about it!

    A portion of this entire mess can be attributed to the entire structure of college education. I saw an earlier post referencing the party culture which is ingrained in many schools. I believe the party culture that occurs is more of a visible symptom of a deeper problem than the problem itself. For example, the College I attended was many miles from any real metropolitan area, meaning just about everyone has to travel to attend. For most folks who are 18-19, College is their very first time being out on their own and having complete freedom. Combine that with little oversight and a culture which spends more time in primary education teaching tests than teaching students how to be functioning adult members of society…and excess, drunkenness and debauchery at schools is bound to occur.

    How many 18 year olds departing their home and parents for the first time are mature enough, both emotionally and financially, to survive completely on their own? The answer is not likely as many as head off to college. Yet the proscribed line is not to get out of school and learn to survive, its “graduate and go on to college so one day you can get a good job” As a result, many college campuses are awash in people who are only half grown up, being expected to make REALLY adult decisions.

    Sadder yet, most people in a state are paying for the college system twice. Not only is it paid for by the tuition of those attending, but every year you can see various university presidents travel to the States Capital city to beg for more money from the taxpayers. One year there was a certain University president in my state who was bold enough to fly the school jet to the capital and threaten that tuition would have to increase without greater appropriations (the drive would have taken about an hour and a half.) So not only are the students paying, but the states taxpayers also are getting hit, many times for utter frivolity and things like construction of unnecessary new buildings on campus (sure to be named after whichever University president brought back the swag from capital city…)

  18. Hi Jared – Outstanding points on all fronts. I think the bigger picture problem is that parents continue to view college as a “plug-and-play” ticket to success. The parents don’t have to teach their kids how to survive, and the kids don’t need to learn it on their own – college will do it for them. Or so goes the thinking. It’s a convention based on convenience, the way so many other aspects of life are these days. I’ll pay a lot of money to make this happen, and it will happen because I’ve paid a lot of money.

    On the party animal aspect of college…I think this is the wink-wink, nod-nod side of college. Parents partied when they were in college and they fully expect their own kids to do the same, in some sort of rite of passage. I’ve seen too many knowing smiles from parents who did as much, who seem perfectly OK with this behavior, even when they condemn the “immorality” of the culture at large. They seem to view college as a special place where the rules that apply to the rest of life are and should be suspended. I think this is a purely emotional attitude that cannot be logically explained.

    But it does at least two things that compromise a students future. First, it creates a priority of partying at school, which directly competes with the process of getting an education. Second, it motivates a student to take a less challenging major so as to leave more time for partying. Those practices are as prevalent as they are warped!

    Parents and students have the power to change the imbalance that college is now creating, but it won’t happen if they continue clinging to obsolete conventions and emotional attachments. $100,000 – $200,000 is way too much to spend when the primary (unspoken) objective is to have fun.

  19. I agree with all of your points. However, some careers such as teaching, nursing, veterinarian, lawyers, doctors ect require college degrees or higher. I graduated high school in 1989 in a small town in rural Mississippi. Up until then no one in my family on my mother’s side ever went to college. My grandparents only made it to the 8th grade. We were taught that getting a good education was the way out of poverty. There were no other options other than college or the military. We knew that we could not afford college without loans so my parents made sure that we participated in things in high school that would help us get scholarships. I went to college on a music scholarship, my others brothers, sisters and cousins had a academic, sports, cheerleading and other various scholarships to school. There are also state based and professional scholarships that offer money to students to go into a certain fields. There are student loan forgiveness programs that will forgive student loan debt. So, I guess my point is that you cannot wait until your child is in thier junior or senior year in highschool to start planning for college. There are others ways to pay for college other than student loans but you have to make the effort to plan ahead and look for them. If your child has a gift in music, plays an instrument, cheerleads, dances ect look for schools that offer scholarships in those areas. For, example my oldest son has a beautiful voice and plays piano. He participated in choir and band all through high school. He had the choice to go to a four year university right out of high school but they didn’t offer him a lot in scholarship money. So, he auditioned for a scholarship at a local junior college and received a FULL scholarship. He received his Associated Degree and transferred to a four year university (Majoring in Music Education emphasis on Music Technology) and received a scholarship that covers 75% of his tuition, room and board. Although he is five hours away he is getting a quality education at one of the best schools in Mississippi. So, its all about what you want. College can be the best experience of your life if you want it to be. I met my husband and have lasting, experiences and friendships that have benefited me to this day. If you plan ahead it doesnt have to have student loan debt attached with it.

  20. Hi Shairease – Thanks for the input on how to make college work by alternate means. I think that people often do try some of the methods that you have outlined. I know that my sons high school graduating class a couple of years ago close to 50% of the grads had some sort of a scholarship awaiting them. However, scholarships are not always well understood. Some of them are for just a few thousand dollars, and relatively few are a complete full ride scholarship that pays for everything, or close to it. But I do agree that long-term planning is completely necessary. Ideally, this should start as soon as a child is born. The more time that you allow yourself to accumulate money, the better position you will be in.

Leave a reply