You’ve heard the mantra: Graduate from high school, go to college, get a good job. But as many people have discovered too late, a four-year degree isn’t always a ticket to the middle class.
While job prospects have been improving for newly minted degree holders since the Great Recession, young college grads still face relatively high levels of unemployment and underemployment. For graduates between the ages of 21 and 24 who aren’t enrolled in further schooling, the unemployment rate in 2015 was 7.2%, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The underemployment rate was 14.9%. Both numbers are significantly higher than they were in 2007, when unemployment among young grads was 5.5% and 9.6% were underemployed.
The class of 2015 also earned the dubious honor of being the most indebted ever, with an average per-grad student loan balance in excess of $35,000. And roughly 42% of college grads have jobs for which a four-year degree isn’t a requirement, according to a McKinsey and Company report.
Given those numbers, some people are questioning whether a four-year college degree is really a smart investment. Former labor secretary Robert Reich has said as a society we’re too focused on encouraging everyone to attend college, when what we really need to do is expand vocational and technical training to “open other gateways to the middle class.” Tech billionaire Peter Thiel has created a $100,000 fellowship for motivated young people looking for an alternative to college.
“We have a bubble in higher education, like we had a bubble in housing,” Thiel told 60 Minutes in 2012.
Anti-college voices aside, there’s still compelling evidence that people who go to college are better off financially than those who don’t. On average, college grads earn $1 million more over a lifetime than people who only graduated from high school, according to data from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story, and college isn’t an automatic path to success.
“For some of my students, a four-year university is by far the best option for them,” Jillian Gordon, an agricultural education teacher in Ohio, wrote in an essay for PBS NewsHour. “But this isn’t the case for all students, and we need to stop pretending it is. A bachelor’s degree is not a piece of paper that says ‘You’re a success!’ just as the lack of one doesn’t say ‘You’re a failure!’”
While pursuing a four-year degree straight out of high school is the right choice for many, these three types of people might benefit from delaying college, or even skipping it altogether.
1. You’re not sure what you want to do
Dropping a lot of money on a college education without knowing what you really want to do after you graduate can be an expensive mistake. In some cases, just taking a year off after high school provides perspective and life experience that can help you decide whether you want to go to college or do something else.
“At first I wanted a year off because I thought it was going to fun,” Jules Arsenault, who took a gap year after college, told Time. “But now I realize that it will give me time to figure out what I want to do. I didn’t want to go to college and not know what I want to study, or get a degree just to have one. With what college costs these days, I wanted to get a degree in something that would be useful to me.”
2. You want a career that doesn’t require a four-year degree
Not every job requires a bachelor’s degree. Two-year degrees and other training programs can prepare you for a well-paying job as a welder, paralegal, air traffic controller, dental hygienist, or in other fields without attending a four-year school.
“Many may argue that getting a four-year college degree is the key to achieving the American Dream and the only path to upward mobility in terms of economic prosperity,” Gordon argued in her essay. “But when my students can go to a two-year technical school for about $20,000, receive an associate degree in welding technology and reliably earn a wage of up to $59,000 (some specialties, like underwater welding, can command up to $90,000 and more, with experience), I find the idea of a four-year university, where students graduate with an average of $30,000 in loan debt, the least logical path of upward economic mobility.”
3. You don’t thrive in a traditional academic environment
Not everyone thrives in a traditional college setting, and earning a bachelor’s degree isn’t the only way to learn new skills or become educated. Forcing yourself to go to college when you suspect another option is a better fit – such as technical or career-focused training, enlisting in the military, or even starting your own business – may be a waste of time and money. College can wait.
“[N]ot every young person is suited to four years of college. They may be bright and ambitious but they won’t get much out of it,” Reich wrote in an article for The Huffington Post. “They’d rather be doing something else, like making money or painting murals. They feel compelled to go to college because they’ve been told over and over that a college degree is necessary.”
“If you have an idea [for a business], consider giving that a shot before going to college,” Robert Farrington, the founder of The College Investor, wrote in an article for Forbes. “When you’re young, it’s a lot easier to take a risk and get started than when you’re older and have a family and larger financial obligations. Plus, the education you’ll get from starting your own business is priceless.”