"We need to give kids better advice," says James Rosenbaum, PhD, professor of sociology, education, and social policy at Northwestern University. "It's not about kids going to college, it's the actual completion of a degree that counts—and many students don't succeed in that." Which is why, some experts say, it may not make sense for every 18-year-old: Only 57 percent of kids who enter an undergraduate institution for a bachelor's degree actually obtain one, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The other 43 percent don't just miss out on the degree; they've also squandered a huge investment. Plus, they've lost potential wages—and work experience. Students who take five or six years to graduate instead of the traditional four spend even less time in the labor market. Not to mention the kids who aren't really cut out for the rigors of academia. "Low-achieving students aren't told they may have to do an enormous amount of remedial work to get up to speed. It can be expensive—especially if the classes don't count as credit toward a major," Rosenbaum says. "For some, that's not a sensible strategy."
There's another overlooked problem: Kids who earn degrees aren't always better off. "A bachelor's degree used to mean a person was highly educated and skilled, and his occupation would reflect that," says Vedder. "But we have 17 million college-educated people in jobs that require a high school education or less. Recently I had a tree cut down by a guy with a master's degree in history. He was working beside a guy who hadn't finished high school." College equips students in many ways, Vedder says. "But a lot of colleges provide only modest amounts of job training—and liberal arts schools, almost none."
The fact is that kids often graduate with no clue of what they want to do next. Some may figure it out at school, but not all. There are other ways to find inspiration. While taking a "gap year" of work or travel, for example, doesn't usually lead to a career path, it can make for a more focused college experience. "In a gap year kids meet new people, have varied experiences, and sometimes discover places they'd like to live or professions they'd like to explore," Vedder says. "The passage of time makes them more mature, independent, and better at making smart decisions—all important qualities." Military service can also offer those benefits, along with self-discipline, technical skills, leadership training, and money for school.