The concept of “everyone should go to college” is finally being questioned, which I think is long overdue. For a long time, going to college has been seen as the ticket to the middle class and upward mobility. This theme has been baked into the minds of parents and has been driven by public policy and education for the last 50 years.

When I got out of college in 1964, it was true that college graduates were unique enough to be able to command good jobs in a variety of industries; it did not seem to matter what your degree was. But, alas, things have changed, and the economy is very different from the 1960s. In the new economy, dominated by low pay service jobs, a college degree is often not needed, or leads to low starting wages.

A recent study of college graduates in Oregon shows that about 50% of the degrees were in arts, humanities, behavior, and social science, with an average salary from $35 to $40,000 per year.[1]

The “college is the answer” mantra seems to have backfired. The problem is that most of these graduates had to go into debt to graduate, which will burden them for years to come. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York estimated in 2011 that the average student loan debt was $23,300, and 10% owe more than $54,000, while 3% owe more than $100,000.

The second big problem is that 50% of college graduates are not aligned with the new service economy. The economy has changed drastically in the last 30 years, but higher education hasn’t changed with it. The U.S. Labor Department says that most jobs (69% in 2010) don’t require a post high school degree.

To get an idea of what the economy is going to offer in the next 10 years, look on the internet for the labor department chart called “Occupations with the largest job growth, 2010 and projected 2020”. This chart gives an idea of the jobs that will be created in this decade. On it you will find registered nurses, teachers, physicians, and accountants. These jobs have good wages, but all of the other jobs average about $33,840 per year. The simple reason is the degrees in nursing, teaching, accounting, or medicine all teach the specific skills that are used in their jobs. It is time to convince parents that the “college for all crusade” is no longer valid, and the new mantra should be “get skills in your education.”

I think a better alternative to the four year humanities and liberal arts degrees is a vocational or two year education to learn applicable skills. Vocational education started out in the 1960s with great promise and a vocational focus. But the idea was sabotaged when community colleges found that it was easier and cheaper to become prep schools for four year colleges, and the emphasis on vocations slowly faded. But interest in vocational education seems to be growing again.

To continue reading the full article, click here to visit our partner publication, PD&D.