New Year, Same Debt

The start of a new year required me to evaluate my monthly student loan payments and calculate where my college pay-off stood. Necessary, but not fun. I believe one of the most important financial decisions a person will ever make (next to buying a house) is whether to go to college.

According to The Wall Street Journal article “Making College Bet Pay Off,” around 40 percent of students who enroll in four-year colleges and universities don’t graduate within six years. This leaves them “saddled with debt and no degree that will help them get a better job to pay for it.” Those who do graduate average more than twice as much debt as graduates did 20 years ago.

A high-stakes gamble, indeed.

And while college graduates “earn about $1 million more than their high-school-educated peers over the course of their lifetimes,” the article does not discuss the lifetime earning potential of high school graduates who choose alternative academic pathways to a four-year college—two-year degrees, apprenticeships, and one-year certificates, to name a few.

The Center’s report “No Four-Year Degree Required” looks at the in-demand jobs these alternative pathways lead to in industries including manufacturing, construction, healthcare, agriculture, and energy and reveals how they often result in higher median lifetime earnings than four-year degree holders. Plus, they are typically free from the high costs accompanying a baccalaureate degree.

About 50 percent of Minnesota high school graduates start on a four-year college road, often because conventional wisdom suggests that going to college is a necessity. However, only 22 percent of jobs in the state require a four-year degree or more, and with the state’s projected workforce shortage expected to rise from 60,000 to approximately 240,000 by the end of 2022, young Minnesotans interested in skilled technical fields should be encouraged to pursue these paths.

This is not to discourage anyone from going after a four-year degree. But students with post-secondary aspirations are not tied to one option and should not feel pressure to pursue one option over another if it won’t pay off for them.