Is It Worth It?
Weighing a four-year degree
against lower-cost alternatives
Kelsey Lauer 8/10/09
As a student in my third year at a pricey private universitywith a cost of $37,070 for this yearI can understand the frequently asked question of, Is my degree really worth it?
I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to cover a good portion of those costs; but not everyone is so fortunate. Approximately two-thirds (65.6 percent) of the 2008 graduating class carried an average debt of $23,186, according to a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education.
Depending upon the career, college graduates earn more money over a lifetime than high school graduates, and graduates of masters programs even morethats a widely accepted fact. But does the time and money invested in a traditional undergraduate degree equal the increased return? What if you dont want to get a bachelors degree? What about alternatives like community colleges and technical programs?
AN ESSENTIAL COST
Many students spend four or more years and a hefty sum of money to obtain a bachelors or masters degree, only to be unable to find a job by graduation and return to live at home, at least temporarily. Around 80 percent of the 2009 undergraduate graduating class moved back home after graduation, according to a CNNMoney.com article.
Cost is a tremendous factor to consider. I think theres good evidence that if a person finishes a four-year-program with a $50,000 debt, that might not be the best outcome, says Charlie MacInness, director of public relations at North Central Community College in Petoskey.
In todays world, individuals should seek education and work that will lead them to a job, to some sort of productive path because the cost of education is high, he adds. Three-quarters of our students are on some kind of financial aid. Education is an investment, both of time and money.
Whether you will earn that investment back depends on the type of degree you decide to pursue, says Petoskey High School guidance counselor Tamara Kolodziej.
It really depends on the degree. Some bachelors (degree holders) might not earn as much as a plumber. Teachers are some of the lowest-paid and highly-educated people there are, she says.
It really depends on what youre doing and how much work you put into it. Hard work is involved in anything, whether youre working or starting a business or getting a masters or bachelors.
Jason Jeffrey, principal/director of the TBA Career-Tech Center in Traverse City, acknowledges the challenge of cost and time invested in pursuing a traditional degree, but says that pursuing some type of learning beyond high school will almost inevitably help advance your career.
Well, theres research that indicates that in many cases folks that have some type of a degree beyond high school (make more money). Lifelong learning is where you want to go with it; I think that folk that have attained some type of a degree beyond high school, its a signal to employers that that person is able to engage in lifelong learning.
Challenges do not outweigh benefit. I think we need to think long-term, and I think that for us who are working in the field of education is that we share with students the benefits of considering their education in some way.
What type of lifelong learning you need to best pursue your ideal career depends on the career itself, Kolodziej says, and indicates her own career as an example.
My career, I couldnt do it without a masters. It depends on what field theyre going into. Usually, a masters allows you to get more pay.
Jeffrey, for the most part, echoes Kolodziejs sentiments, but points out that the scale can swing the opposite way. While a masters degree may allow you to pursue a certain career, an apprenticeship may be necessary for another type of career.
I think that there are certain careers on- the-job-training that is probably enough. I think there are some areas in the trades, particularly where students have the opportunity to learn through an apprenticeship. Those are examples where lifelong learning is happening, but is much more closely related than someone earning a four-year degree.
Among Petoskey High School student graduates, Kolodziej says that about 80 percent pursue a traditional bachelors degree, while the other 20 go down alternate paths such as tech schools, joining the military or simply finding a job.
(Where they go) depends on what theyre interested in, she says. Community colleges specialize in different things. There are a couple (of students) per year in culinary school who go all over. Kids go to the automotive program and someone went through the concrete program at Alpena.
She adds, (Petoskey has) a medical occupation programonly 30 kids per year. We try to use programs to have them explore a little beyond what they think they need to do. Traditionally, what you tend to see in high school is that theyre either going to be a lawyer or a doctor.
Some of those alternatives to a traditional bachelors degreepursuing a career as a plumber or electrician, for instanceoffer just as much income as a traditional bachelors degree, according to Jeffrey.
Apprenticeships are often referred to as the other four-year degree, Jeffrey says. If you look at earnings, you will see that there are many careers where you have a technical certificate of some kind where wages compare to a four-year degree at a lower cost to the individual.
MacInness points out that lower-cost alternatives can be particularly useful to adults who are returning to school for more education after being laid-off from their jobs or otherwise affected by the economy.
For people who are a little bit older, the applied degree is better. Nursing is an intense and longer program, but the payoff is a good job forever. There are business-type degrees that put somebody into an office relatively quickly, MacInness says.
And now is a particularly good time for adults to pursue that education, MacInness says, thanks to the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which offers qualified workers who have been laid-off, benefits for up to two years if they enroll in some type of retraining programsuch as a technical degree or community college.
MacInness says that North Central Michigan College has seen an increased number of adult students enrolled thanks to the act.
Our enrollment is rising dramatically every semester, he says. The winter semester was up six percent from the previous year, and full-time enrollment, which included the TAA folks, was up 13 percent. Eighteen to 19-year-olds were the largest category, but 45-49 was the second largest category, and that was because of lay-offs.
Ultimately, however, the decision of which career or degree to pursueand which will be the best fitis up to the individual.
They have to go in the direction they are going to excel in. There is no single key to success. It really depends on the individual, MacInness says. We can tell them whats available. We can guide them in a direction to find where the wages are, but each of us have to go where our inclinations take us.