- College costs have risen faster than salaries, leading graduates to accumulate massive student loan debt.
- Now some major employers are accepting alternative forms of education in lieu of bachelor's degrees.
- One mom hopes her children pursue more targeted and less expensive training programs rather than a 4-year university.
When I enrolled at a private university in the 2000s, annual tuition, plus room, board, and fees, totaled about $32,000—or roughly equal to my base salary as a magazine editorial assistant, my first job out of college. Magazine editorial assistants graduating today can expect to earn about $45,000. But those annual charges from my alma mater? They're around $80,000 now.
Even though getting a 4-year college degree was my golden ticket to jumping from lower to upper middle class, that springboard has become a burden. Because salaries haven't inflated as much as college costs, graduates' student debt has become harder to pay down, with brutal downstream consequences. Seventy percent of millennials and Gen Zers who have had student loan debt haven't been able to buy a home, save for emergencies or retirement, or pay off other debt. I don't want my kids to be part of that 70%.
But debt isn't the only reason why I'm not steering my kids toward a traditional 4-year degree. It's also because a bachelor's degree isn't the only path to success. It never was, of course. I went to high school with people who went straight into trades, earning way more than I did answering my bosses' phones and making copies. Maybe my children will go the trade route, as their electrician grandfather did.
Or maybe they'll follow in their parents' white-collar footsteps. Luckily, there are more options for getting there now, and they don't necessarily involve 6-figure expenditures. Primo companies, including major tech employers, have recently stopped requiring bachelor's degrees, instead accepting targeted (read: faster and cheaper) certificate or boot-camp programs. There are even apprentice programs at blue-chip companies that don't require a 4-year degree. Business leaders are increasingly recognizing that these specialized programs offer candidates the training their employees really need—and that it's not fair to pass over applicants for whom college wasn't a good fit or a financial possibility.
I understand that the college experience isn't just about prepping a student for a single job. It's about teaching people to think critically, a crucial skill in this age of disinformation. It's about teaching young adults to live on their own—with grown-ups around to help with issues that students can't resolve by themselves. It's about giving students a broad base of knowledge that can open up many different future options. It's about having fun too. I loved my college experience, making friends with people from around the country and exploring the nearby city that was so different from my hometown. What kind of mother would think of depriving her kids of the same?
A practical one. One who wants to teach her children from the get-go how to be smart with money. And accumulating massive debt when there are good alternatives to achieving success isn't being smart with money. Yes, college grads tend to outearn those without bachelor's degrees, but I'm betting on that shifting as employers open their minds to nontraditional forms of education. Elite college degrees will probably remain a good investment—Ivy League grads tend to earn about double what other grads make 10 years after college—but my kids don't have the pedigree to guarantee them acceptance (sorry, boys), and might not have the grades. They can achieve similar happiness without plunging themselves into insurmountable debt. I know because I've seen countless examples of this.
I admit that it's a privilege to assume that my white sons will be able to go on to have fulfilling careers without bachelor's degrees. When I shared this on social media, a Black mom told me that she's insisting that her children go to college because without that degree, career growth would be hard for her Black sons. Maybe it would be hard for mine too. Maybe my children will want to enter fields that require bachelor's degrees and additional schooling, such as medicine or law, anyway.
If my boys end up going the college route, that's OK. I was a headstrong teen, and my parents couldn't have convinced me to veer off my path. But the landscape has changed so much since I left high school. I couldn't have fathomed getting a high-quality education for so much less entirely online. I'll make sure that my kids at least explore all the options, the costs, and the rewards so that they can make a well-informed decision—one that hopefully won't prevent them from building wealth.
Want to see the other side of this coin? Here's why college is worth the expense for one family.