Durham News: Opinion

Four-year schools not the only route

In a region hosting several four-year institutions, this piece will probably get my head handed to me. My own educational status may also raise eyebrows, so let me self-disclose it up front: While I may have a master’s degree, I got it for free and when I was almost 30 while working for a university where I had also completed my undergrad studies.

All of this is to say that I know what I am talking about in stating that for some – if not many – 18 year olds, an immediate trip to a four-year school is not the only route to take. In fact, with only about 25 percent of freshman entering college nationally actually graduating in five years, a rush to a four-year school can be a painful waste of time, money, and self-confidence for many kids, plus their parent(s).

I sure didn’t know “what I wanted to be when I grew up” when I was 18. Since very few teens can handle a $25,000 car, why entrust them with that much or more for a year in private college (and about half that for in-staters at public schools)? Most kids and parents have not done the prep work. Worse, many high school graduates are not even academically ready for college; witness the basic remediation classes all colleges offer!

There is ongoing academic debate about whether it is one’s major or alma mater that is the meal ticket to a rewarding life. Two of my old associates believe that the choice of major over college is way more important when it comes to employment success. Others think that if you can’t at least get into – let alone graduate from – the top 20 private schools in the country (such as Harvard, MIT, Yale, Duke), you should not waste the $100-175K ($100K per year by 2020) investment.

Test: Did you blink at the four-year college expense figures above? Yes the average annual tab for a four-year private college has more than doubled since the mid-80s – thrice the rate of consumer prices.

The average graduate and/or their family now owe(s) $20K – 50 percent higher than a decade ago – with many owing twice that. And the cost of that debt has been rising as well. Also contributing is a sharp drop in direct aid, or Pell grants, which have not increased, let alone paced inflation. So more kids and parents are crushed by debt that affects their respective abilities to start a business/practice and retire.

Finally, some additional case-making stats: 85 percent of graduates do not work in their chosen field; 65 percent of top technical jobs require two years or less of training; the average career these days is changed eight times; many high-paying jobs do not require academic credentials; businesses spend billions to educate their employees, many through tuition reimbursement benefits; upwards of 40 percent of community college students already have a bachelor’s degree; and community colleges transfer more students to local universities every year.

Which leads to my list of options and final head-saving disclosure: Yes, I happen to work for a workforce demonstration program that is promoting occupational skills leading to employment in high-tech/wage jobs. But a community college is not the only alternative to an immediate trip to higher academia I am advocating, as there are other private institutions that are also a better choice as are many trade and technical schools (see www.ncstars.org,) and, yes, the military.

Of course, four years of immediate après high school college may work for some, especially if they have chosen wisely. But “hire” education may be the smarter path for many and there may still be time for some to adjust their headings.