Everybody Doesn’t Have To Go To College

During the last 20 years or so, Americans have come to believe that all students should aspire to a college education, regardless of academic interest or proficiency.  “You can be anything you want to be” is the message – even though we all know that isn’t true. Somehow, equal opportunity has become a one-size-fits-all conveyor belt into a four-year college.

Many times, where that conveyor belt takes students is into debt, wasted years, and a sense of failure.

What are the facts?  69% of the students who graduated from college in 2013 had debt, and the average amount of debt was $28,400 per borrower.  The unemployment rate for new college graduates in 2013 was 7.8% – and many of the jobs they got did not require a college degree.  Less than 60% of the students who enter a four year college actually finish within six years.  Two-thirds of the available jobs do not require a college degree!

Getting a bachelor’s degree is not a slam-dunk into the good life.  Many teenagers are actually more interested in being a plumber, a truck driver, or a police officer – all worthwhile careers that provide a good living, but do not require a college degree.

So let’s look at some of the options for high school seniors who aren’t interested in a four-year college degree.

For many young people, the most cost-effective and efficient way to spend their post-secondary education dollars is at community colleges, which offer vocationally-related associate’s degrees and career-specific training at a very low cost to the student.

At my local community college, students can earn an associate’s degree, a diploma, or a certificate in a wide variety of fields.  Associate’s degrees require the most coursework, diploma programs are about half of that, and certificate programs require the least number of courses.  For example, an associate’s degree in computer programming requires 22 courses, the diploma requires 12 courses, and the certificate requires 5 courses.

Associates degrees are two-year college degrees that include general education requirements as well as classes in a specific field of study.  An associate’s degree can be the first step on the path to a bachelor’s degree, or it can provide all the knowledge and skills necessary for a great career.  Examples of associate degree programs include computer programming, criminal justice, cosmetology, horticulture, welding, nursing, and accounting.

Diplomas and certificates tell a potential employer that the applicant has demonstrated mastery of a set of skills.  Examples of certificate programs include bookkeeping, pre-engineering, preschool education, basic electronics, and landscaping.  Examples of diploma programs include emergency medical science, surgical technology, network technology, and medical office administration.

Another time-honored way of getting post-secondary training – for free – is to join the military.  Be all that you can be!   The armed forces have a website called Today’s Military that features information about recruitment, requirements, military training, and careers in all five branches:  http://www.todaysmilitary.com/military-careers/military-career-fields.    Military service requires technical knowledge, leadership skills, team work, and a strong work ethic – great preparation for any career in any field.

There are many careers that don’t require any formal certification or training, although on-the-job training may be necessary.  Examples include retail sales, the performing arts, food service, customer service, insurance adjusters, city maintenance workers, and office workers.

Many jobs in community service fields (law enforcement, firefighting, animal control, emergency medical tech) do not require a college degree, although training is certainly necessary.

There are a number of excellent websites that give students information about careers and how to pursue them.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has a job portal (www.bls.gov/k12), designed for high school students and recent graduates.  The student can click on an area of interest (math, building and fixing things, law, computers, managing money, etc.) and then the site lists several careers that might be appropriate.  When the student clicks on one of the careers, the link goes to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, which lists all the information about that career, including job description, median pay, entry-level educational requirements, job outlook, and work environment.

The federal government has an umbrella site called the American Job Center (http://jobcenter.usa.gov/explore-careers) that includes many different ways to explore careers and job trends.  My Next Move (http://www.mynextmove.org/), for example, is sponsored by the Department of Labor and has tools that are specifically designed to help high school students look at all the options and plan their future.

Heather Hutchins published a small book for the American Library Association called “I don’t want to go to college: Other paths to success” (http://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2012/12/alternatives-four-year-college-degree ).  This book offers a wealth of ideas and resources about exploring careers, getting the necessary training, applying to programs, writing a resume, going to interviews, and getting financial aid.

We serve our young people best when we play to their strengths, allow them the opportunity to choose their path in life, and value their hard work in any field of endeavor.  Every student should have the opportunity to pursue a four-year college degree if that is their dream – but no student should be pushed into path that isn’t right for them.


Alice Wellborn is the author of the recently released book, The Savvy Parent’s Guide to Public School, available at http://www.amazon.com/Savvy-Parents-Guide-Public-School/dp/1500470813.  This practical guide helps parents navigate the frustrating world of public education.  Designed to empower parents to work effectively with teachers and school administrators, the book provides parents with the information and tools they need to become strong partners in their child’s school community.

Alice Wellborn, M.A. has been a licensed school psychologist for over 35 years (and the mother of three sons for almost 30 years!)  She received the NC School Psychology Association Presidential Award of Honor in 2002 for her advocacy on behalf of children.  Alice is the education specialist at FlyLady, and a bi-monthly columnist at her local newspaper on topics related to public school.  Her weekly blog is featured at both flylady.net and schoolsavvyparents.com. Alice’s Facebook page, No More Parents Left Behind, features questions and comments about education and parenting.  Alice believes that strong parent/teacher partnerships are a vital part of effective public education.

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