Higher Education

Let's Start Telling Young People the Whole Truth About College


The idea that college is appropriate—essential, even—for all Americans is a myth. We’ve been told there are no decent jobs without a college education. While unemployment among recent college grads is 8.5 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute, if you dig into the numbers you’ll find that 46 percent of them consider themselves “mal-employed.” Translation: They’re working largely in retail and entry-level hospitality, jobs that do not require their college degree.

One folktale that’s been spun from this is that you’ll never earn a living wage unless you have a college degree. This is patently untrue. Our trade professions are clamoring for quality employees to keep up with the demands of a recovering economy. “The homebuilding industry faces a chronic shortage of skilled workers,” laments Jerry Howard, chief executive of the National Association of Home Builders. In many professions, workers can earn as much or more than someone with a degree in marketing or advertising.


The mythology we’ve constructed around a college education does our young people a disservice by narrowing their options. In high school, we reflexively steer them toward continuing their education without much discussion of the financially and intellectually rewarding careers in challenging fields that require intelligent responses to complex problems, but not necessarily a college degree.

The truth is, a college education is not a prerequisite to an attractive salary. Roofing “has a hierarchy like many other [professions],” says Bill Good, executive vice president of the National Roofing Contractors Association. Entry-level workers, he says, make $10 to $15 per hour, while experienced roofers can earn as much as $30 per hour. Foremen can make close to six figures, and project managers routinely earn well into six figures. Good’s trade group even runs an MBA-style executive program for members at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

With recent advances in materials and computer science, the work in construction and many other trades is getting more complex, requiring new cognitive skills in many cases. “We don’t consider our apprentice and training programs as just a good alternative for individuals who cannot or do not want to go to college,” says John Grau, CEO of the National Electrical Contractors Association. “Based on the sophistication of our trade and the high level of training it requires, a good number of our applicants enter our [training] program after earning a college degree.”

The trades do not have a monopoly on satisfying, well-paid alternatives to college. For many careers, job-specific training happens at work. This means that growing sectors such as hospitality, health care, and medical technology do not need to rely on college-educated employees. They want employees with the potential to succeed in their own industry-specific educational programs. Traditional offerings by colleges and universities are simply not geared toward this type of approach.

We’ve created folklore around the entrepreneur—business schools certainly play this up—celebrating the single-minded focus and against-all-odds achievement of the few that make it to the top of their industry. And that’s fine. We are, after all, an aspirational nation.

But we fail to celebrate the entrepreneurial opportunities that specialized trades offer to start a business that provides electrical, roofing, or other services to homebuilding and remodeling companies. The same is true in other sectors such as hospitality and health care.

Steering every high school graduate toward college without conversations about viable alternatives constricts their future, condemns many to failure, and puts many more into unnecessary debt. At $1.2 trillion and growing, college debt continues to be the No. 2 form of private debt in the U.S. (behind mortgages and ahead of auto loans and credit cards). This traps young people into years of repayment and delays their entry into independent adulthood. Consider that only 63 percent of students who enroll in a four-year college will earn a degree, and it will take them an average of six years to do so.

This lemming-like march to higher education preempts otherwise capable young people from discovering a satisfying profession in the trades and other skilled professions. And it may leave them needing outside training anyway as they pursue employment where the jobs are. College is not for every child, and choosing an alternate path need not leave anyone behind.

Karen-cates-190
Cates teaches negotiations, human resource management and organization behavior for MBA programs at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. She also teaches executive education programs on issues of leadership development, communication, and employee relations. As an executive coach she serves as a mediator to resolve in-house conflicts, and advises organizations on leadership and their people management systems.

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