Many students entering four-year colleges after high school are unprepared academically, financially or emotionally. Others spend tens of thousands of dollars not really knowing what they want to do and struggling to pay back loans.  College has become an expectation for the middle class, with the very negative consequence of many high-schoolers not looking at other options.

Social scientist Charles Murray talks about how those other options, such as learning a trade, are seen as second class to college in a 2007 Wall Street Journal article.  Author Frank Schaeffer talked about how one parent reacted to his son joining the marines and forsaking college by saying, “what a waste.”  Parents tend to be embarrassed and worried that, instead of college, their child chooses to take time off or attend a vocational school. Those who go straight into the workforce are viewed as making an equally poor life choice. 

One commonly cited argument for a bachelor’s degree is the lifetime earnings advantage over someone with just a high school degree. The truth is both more complicated and less favorable for going straight to college. Many people who have low lifetime earnings wouldn’t be helped by college since they lack the motivation or intelligence to graduate. Others succeed because of those traits regardless if they get a degree. Even when someone earns the degree, a lot depends on the major. A good two year degree or certification can pay better than many four-year degrees. 

In 2008, the median yearly salary for a graduate with a degree in English is $36,700; for a sociology graduate, $35,700.  Meanwhile, the average private school costs a little more than $100,000 for four years, not including living expenses. Even four years of Ohio State will total more than $35,000, not including other expenses. Also, four years of full-time earnings have been given up or reduced, and student loans accrue interest. In addition no one is guaranteed to graduate in four years. Of the more than 1.2 million entering freshmen, less than 60 percent got a degree in six years.  Though this number is exaggerated by non-competitive schools such as Columbus State, even a highly competitive school such as Case Western only has an 81% six year graduation rate and many state schools do even worse.

For those who are working toward professions that require degrees, such as teaching or engineering, college should be encouraged by high school counselors and parents.  For people who don’t measure up academically or don’t need to spend four years getting a degree, attending anyway can be disastrous, wasting time and building debt. Parents and counselors should put more options on the table and be honest about the positives and negatives of each.