The soaring cost of tuition coupled with the nation's economic crisis has students and parents trying to make an educated guess about whether a traditional four-year experience is best for everyone.

By Richard Laliberte

I recently made a bank deposit for a few months' worth of freelance work, then wrote a huge tuition check to my son's college. Afterward, instead of hunkering down again and getting back to work to bring in more money, I felt like having a stiff drink.

"Paying for college is a bigger deal than it used to be," says economics professor Richard Vedder, PhD, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity at Ohio University. "Higher education costs are rising faster than inflation, as well as family income." Years ago sending a kid to college might have taken 10 to 12 percent of household earnings, Vedder says. Today it's more like 25 to 30 percent. Average costs for attending a private four-year school are close to $30,000 a year, while in-state public universities run approximately $20,000—and expenses are rising 4 to 6.5 percent a year.

The limping economy has made the burden heavier while pushing higher education further out of reach for many people. The fix? "Families are borrowing," Vedder says. Two-thirds of graduates from four-year colleges carry substantial student loan debts—up 27 percent since 2004, according to the Project on Student Debt, an independent nonprofit group. Seniors at private schools graduate with $27,650 in student loan debt, while public school grads owe about $20,000. And many parents shoulder an added layer of "shadow debt," deficits not reflected in official college-cost reports. They may short-change retirement funds, take out large home equity loans, or put off major repairs like a new roof or furnace.

Yet conventional wisdom says college is an essential investment in your child's future. The vast majority of parents assume their kids are headed that way, and teens, in large part, are living up to expectations: Almost 72 percent enroll in some form of advanced schooling right after twelfth grade—an all-time high. But the triple whammy of dwindling or (nonexistent) family savings, crushing debt, and an uncertain job market has parents asking an unsettling question: Is college really worth it?

Kids Aren't Created Equal

President Obama has set a national goal for the United States to have the world's highest college graduation rate by the end of the decade. A key component of the initiative is providing academically gifted but disadvantaged kids with opportunities. But an underlying assumption of the program is that a four-year school should be automatic for every student—even those who aren't interested or may not be right for it. "Some kids just aren't college material," says Joe Lamacchia. He doesn't mean that as a put-down: Lamacchia is a landscaper and the voice of Blue Collar and Proud of It (HCI), a book and website celebrating the rewards of working in a trade. He has become a spokesperson for the blue-collar grassroots movement. "We're not all cut out for sitting at a desk, whether it's in a classroom or a cubicle," he says. "Individuals like me are driven to move and build and create." Society needs people to call when cars break down or roads are full of potholes or faucets are leaking—services that are necessary even during an economic downturn. In fact, many of these jobs are recession-proof. "There are ways to make a good living without a bachelor's degree," Lamacchia says, "but people are told the only way to succeed is by going to college. I once met a mom whose son was always fixing things and taking doors off hinges. He built a workshop in the basement. Is four more years in class the only option for a kid like that?"

For a smarter approach, ask your teen if he knows what he wants to do, then brainstorm potential career paths. "A teen's future should be tailor-made to his talents, likes and dislikes, and financial situation," Vedder says. For example, if a kid wants to be a hairstylist or chef, a trade school or two-year program may be a good choice. "Culinary classes are very popular at community colleges," Vedder says. And getting on-the-job training as a line cook or in some other trade can jump-start a career while providing valuable "real world" experience, which students exiting a four-year college bubble might lack.

Even if your teen's dream of being an artist or musician doesn't pan out, school as an option won't suddenly disappear. And a person who enrolls a few years later with a sense of purpose and an idea of what to study as a foundation for a meaningful career is likely to be better off than someone who discovered college wasn't the right choice—at the unfortunate expense of thousands and thousands of debt dollars.

College Doesn't Guarantee Success

"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.

The Earnings Chasm

Proponents of academia cite the "truism" that, on average, people with a bachelor's degree earn about a million dollars more over a lifetime than those who have only graduated from high school. New research, though, suggests such estimates are overblown. A recent study by PayScale for Bloomberg Businessweek finds the figure to be closer to $627,000. When adjusted for the fact that more than half of graduates take six years, the earnings gap falls to just $393,000. Even more surprising, 20 percent of men and 16 percent of women who complete college earn less than the average wage of someone who only finished high school, according to the College Board. "Unemployment is high even among university graduates," Vedder says. "They're having a tough time finding traditional white-collar jobs."

Still, it can't be denied that some jobs require a bachelor's degree just to interview or advance. The majority of college alumnae do make more money—even if hired for the same position as someone with just a high school diploma. And once in a job, college grads continue to be given priority. "Money for on-the-job training mostly goes to people with at least a bachelor's degree," says Nicole Smith, PhD, senior economist at Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. "They're the ones employers choose to invest in." When young people show up for interviews, there are few ways for employers to measure critical thinking—a trait that indicates trainability. "They use diplomas and transcripts," explains Smith, "as indications of potential."

What Lies Ahead

Ultimately, even for kids who don't feel cut out for college, education beyond a high school diploma is essential. Many high-growth careers over the next decade—including network systems analyst, financial examiner, and exercise trainer—will continue to require some type of schooling. But it's how kids choose to get extra knowledge that matters—and there are options. "The new educational landscape includes alternatives way beyond a bachelor's degree, including two-year degrees and industrial certifications," says Smith. Before your teen tosses her college applications, though, keep this in mind regarding earning potential: While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 14 of the 20 occupations with the most openings over the next decade won't require a college education, many of these jobs—health aide, customer service rep, retail salesperson—offer low pay.

More Than Money

Of course, higher education is about more than potential salary. By looking only at return on investment, we lose sight of payoffs that some people think fall in the "priceless" category, like being more cultured and open-minded. "College graduates understand the world," Vedder says. "They also learn discipline, critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and how to get along with people." Highly educated people are more likely to vote, volunteer, and stay off public assistance programs. They're also more likely to be healthy and live longer.

Some higher-ed cheerleaders say it's wrong to even talk about alternatives to college because it lowers expectations for people who could benefit most from its rewards. Black and Hispanic minorities, for example, earn degrees at rates about half that of whites. "Without college, the very poorest will make the least money of all," Vedder says. Unemployment, for example, is two times higher for high school grads than for degree earners, no matter what the ethnicity—but blacks are especially hard hit. "The important thing is that all people have an opportunity to succeed," Smith says.

Ultimately, parents must observe their kids closely and talk to them about their dreams, goals, and capabilities. Together they can devise a smart, workable plan for the future. The key is to encourage kids to reach their fullest potential—seize the day—without railroading them into situations that my not serve their strengths. If college isn't the right fit, at least for now, consider alternatives. "Keep doors open for your teen," Vedder says. "Remember that all kids are a bit different."

Alternative College Opportunities

Community College

Fields of Study: Accounting, hotel management, paralegal studies, computer science, education, health care, and technology careers such as drafting, design, and electrical engineering.

Why It Works: Average tuition and fees for public two-year programs culminating in an associate's degree or professional certificate are $2,544 a year—about a tenth of the cost of a private college. Some community colleges even provide free tuition for students with good grades. "Kids get valuable credentials in a short time and can progress from there," says James Rosenbaum. Junior colleges can be a cost-effective way to fulfill general education requirements before a student decides on a specific field of study and transfers to a university. And if a student's high school grades aren't strong, two years of community college can open doors to better four-year schools. Rosenbaum's research finds that 54 percent of students who earn associate's degrees continue on with their schooling, and 35 percent get a four-year degree, usually applying two-year credits toward their bachelor's. Some statistics even suggest that over the next decade occupations requiring only an associate's degree will grow faster than those requiring a bachelor's.

Technical Institute

Fields of Study: Carpentry, welding, computer maintenance, Web design, cosmetology, dental technology, culinary arts, electronics, printing, engine repair, plumbing, and heating/air conditioning.

Why It Works: At a trade school, students get vocational and career training for tuition costs that are usually comparable to those of a community college. But unlike junior colleges, tech schools require fewer general education classes, so students with a poor academic record aren't forced to do as much remedial work. Program schedules may be consistent from one semester to the next so working students don't have to rearrange their lives every few months. "These schools focus on professional certification and have their ears to the ground for local jobs," Nicole Smith says. "Of students who get licenses and certificates, 43 percent make more money than people who get a bachelor's degree."

For-Profit College

Fields of Study: Business administration, accounting, contract management, criminal justice, information systems, and marketing.

Why It Works: The schools' emphasis on career training—as well as the convenience of nighttime or weekend classes and online coursework—makes them a legitimate alternative for some working students, Richard Vedder says. Most offer certificates or diplomas for two-year programs and are well connected to local job markets—though they're usually more expensive than community colleges. According to the General Accounting Office (GAO), enrollment at for-profit colleges has more than tripled in recent years. "You won't find the country club amenities of some colleges," Vedder says. "These schools may be headquartered in an office building near a highway. But they're geared toward the needs of students—rather than professors seeking tenure—and they're gaining popularity because of that." But buyer beware: An investigation by the GAO found deceptive practices among recruiters, such as exaggerating graduates' income potential.

10 Fields for the Future

Here are the average expected earnings for the fastest-growing professions that don't require college, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Dental hygienist


Associate's Degree

Registered nurse


Associate's Degree

Physical therapist assistant


Associate's Degree

Administrative assistant


On-the-Job Training

Truck driver


On-the-Job Training

Self-enrichment education teacher


On-the-Job Training

Bookkeeping clerk


On-the-Job Training

Veterinary technician


Associate's Degree

Medical assistant


On-the-Job Training

Physical therapist aide


On-the-Job Training