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Roaming the World Versus Four Years of College

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July 07, 2011 05:19 pm


It is no secret among my friends and family members that I am passionate about anything and everything to do with education. I am often asked by friends to help them sort out what they should be looking for in a school for their children, figure out what test scores in their district mean, or help them understand a new policy in their state. So when my friend Nicole mentioned she was concerned about her nephew, I was happy to round up some information for her.

Here’s her question: Do you have any statistics on the benefits of college? My 15-year-old nephew is saying he wants to roam the world and doesn’t want to waste four years of his life at college. He thinks he knows more than everyone else and that college would be a waste of his time. We are trying to convince him of the value of it beyond just the degree. Thanks!

We had just been discussing this very issue at the Alliance. There are many potholes on the path to college. Information is one way to smooth the road. Here’s my response to Nicole:

Dear Nicole:

Thanks so much for asking about the benefits of college completion. Here is some information that might be of use to your nephew and his family. There are a couple of things your nephew should consider:

• Long-term economic benefits of college
• Long-term job stability, benefits, and satisfaction
• Other options: gap year, military, etc.
• Completion matters

From a purely economic standpoint, college completion is a ticket to better financial security. Everyone knows the price of a college degree, but few know the price of not getting one: $22K a year. In 2008, the median earnings for college graduates was $55,700, which was $21,900 more than the median earnings of high school graduates who hadn’t attended college. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, median weekly earnings with a college degree: $1,038. With a high school diploma? Just $626. Over a lifetime, we’re talking about $1 million. That’s right-a college degree can earn $1 million more over your lifetime, according to U.S. Census findings.

On the flip side, high school graduates are three times more likely to live in poverty than college graduates, and eight times more likely to depend on public assistance programs. That’s because when all is said and done, long-term and short-term employment prospects continue to be better for college grads. Despite the great recession, college graduates’ employment rate rose 2 percent between the first quarter of 2007 and the first quarter of 2010. Every group with lower education levels saw employment numbers decline. The hardest hit were those who hadn’t finished high school. One in five of them had lost a job, compared with 1 in 100 for high school graduates and those with some college education. In 2010, The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that the unemployment rate in 2010 for those with a high school diploma was 10.3 percent. For college grads, the rate was almost half that at 5.4 percent.

Then there’s the benefit of long-term job satisfaction. The types of professional jobs one gets with a college degree are more likely to offer opportunities for growth, better benefits, better work-life balance, and be more rewarding. In 2008, about 60 percent of people who had attended college-regardless of whether they’d completed a degree-reported that they were very satisfied with their jobs. Only 50 percent of high school graduates and 40 percent of high school dropouts could say the same. People with job satisfaction were three times as likely to say that they were very happy. Almost 70 percent of college graduates have employer-provided health insurance or pension plans, whereas only half of high school graduates do. Also, while 93 percent of college grads participate in employer-matching pension plans if they’re available, only 75 percent of those who didn’t complete high school do, meaning that 1 in 4 pass up essentially free money from their employer.

So what kinds of jobs are we talking about? This chart shows an extensive range of jobs with required training. It also shows how many people have that job and their level of educational attainment. This should give your nephew a sense of what kinds of jobs might be available to him without a college degree. For example, “lodging managers” (i.e., the manager of a hotel) requires “work experience in a related occupation,” and about 20 percent of people in that job have a high school diploma, about 25 percent have some college, and 29 percent have a college degree. So theoretically, he could get into that field without a college degree, especially if he gets involved in a career/technical education program and gains a certificate or other specialized knowledge to give him a head start. However, it’s worth noting that the number of jobs requiring a college degree or higher is expected to grow by 23 percent from 2008 to 2018.

As a parent as well as someone who’s been working in this field for almost fifteen years, I can certainly understand a student’s concern about taking on a four-year, expensive commitment like college if he is not 100 percent certain that it is the right choice. However, there are many other options to consider.

Attending college at a comprehensive four-year institution does not necessarily need to happen between the ages of 18 and 22. The “gap year”-an opportunity for students to take a year off between high school and college to work, travel, volunteer, or participate in some combination thereof-is an option some families consider. Students typically apply to and are accepted into a college and then defer their acceptance for a year. This gives them a broader set of experiences upon which to draw when they finally do enter college, especially if they are doing something interesting and meaningful.

Quite frankly, some students are just not ready for with college at age 18. Personally, I know a few folks who have chosen to join the military for four or eight years to serve their country and gain valuable, marketable experience before going back to school-this time with significantly better financial options-and then make very successful careers for themselves. Students who go to college after a few years in the workforce often find their college experience more meaningful than they would have at age 18, and find themselves working harder and achieving at higher levels than they might have as younger students.

For students interested in a specific craft or the arts, the time immediately after high school might be well spent pursuing that craft, but college will likely become a desirable experience at some point in their careers-again, especially for that long-term financial comfort and satisfaction.

Thus, if your nephew is considering NOT attending college, he should have a solid plan for what to do instead. You can help by encouraging him to do the following:

• Talk to teachers in the school, guidance counselors, and other adults about options.

• Engage in some in-depth career exploration, whether it’s through a school program or family/social networking.

• Learn as much about different job opportunities as possible and get a sense of what kind of path he might be on.

• Enroll in a career/technical education program in his high school and complete a concentration-students who actually complete these concentrations tend to do better in their other schoolwork and be better prepared for career or college.

• Work toward a certificate or find a dual-enrollment program that allows him to take classes on a college campus to see what it’s all about. It may be that your nephew has a fixed idea of what college is like in his head, and seeing a campus in action could provide needed perspective. Maybe point out to him that, for example, if he’s not comfortable on a large, comprehensive campus, he might be happier at a small, individualized college.

• Online learning is also on the rise. If he’s eager to make headway in the workforce, perhaps he can find job opportunities that provide him with good experience while taking classes at a local community or four-year college online and/or part time.

Complete whatever he sets out to do. One very important thing to remember: completion-of whatever it is he sets out to do-matters. In Kentucky, researchers found that students who complete a career concentration in high school do better overall than those who dabble in a variety and complete none. Researchers looking at Florida data found that students who complete an associate’s degree or other work-based certificate from a community college do better financially than students who just attend college for two years. And students who complete college do much better than students who take a few units and then drop out. Whatever he chooses to do, he should keep his eye on the prize and finish what he starts.


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