Does a College Degree Automatically Mean Success? More Young People Say No

AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File

As a high school graduate somewhere in the 80s, I assumed I would go to college for four years, get a degree in something, and go on with my life. And I did that, but only for two years, didn't graduate, and got the dreaded, "I'm not paying for you to party anymore" lecture from my dad. I spent the next 30 years in health care. I made a decent living, and did manage to make it back to college in my 50s, and actually graduate with a degree in something I could get a job in. But given the current state of colleges and universities, whether it is the uber-left uber-woke environment or the astronomical costs associated with getting that college degree, more Americans of all ages are rethinking whether or not the traditional four-year college degree pathway is the only way to succeed. 

The results of a recent Pew Research poll should definitely make the average young person think as they decide what profession they would like to pursue. The current state of the economy aside, the poll showed that just one in four U.S. adults said that it is "extremely important" or "very important" to have a four-year degree to get a well-paying job. Of those polled, 35 percent said that getting that degree is "somewhat important," and 40 percent "little to not important." Just 15 years ago, three in four said a degree was important. 

The issue of graduating with massive amounts of debt is a deal breaker for about half of the poll respondents. Only 22 percent said it was a "worthwhile investment" as long as you don't have to go into debt to do it, good luck with that. Another interesting finding was when the survey was broken down by political affiliation. Republicans seemed to have the least confidence in the value of a college degree, with six in ten saying a degree is less important than 20 years ago. Of those who said they were Democrats, it was four in ten. A further indication that right-leaning potential students do not want to go into debt to be indoctrinated.

The workforce for both men and women who forego that degree is very different today. Back in the 70s, young men could graduate from high school, join a trade union, and do very well. But those same young men back in 1973 were earning on average around $58,000 a year. Fifty years later, this same group earns about 22 percent less. For women without degrees, the average income has risen a bit since the 70s due to much better job and career opportunities, going from $35,000 in 1973 to $36,000 today. The fact that the average income for any group of women has only risen $1,000 in 50 years is certainly a topic for another day.

It appears that it is Gen-Zers who are figuring out that there are more attractive options than college. Enrollment in vocational-focused community colleges went up by 16 percent in 2023. Since 2018, those studying construction trades have risen 23 percent and students going into HVAC and vehicle maintenance went up by seven percent. One 20-year-old who completed a nine-month training program for welding, says that based on the job security and increased yearly earnings he sees in his new profession, after five years, he fully expects to be making a six-figure salary. He also expects to be able to buy a house by the time he is 24, with no debt. 

Young women are also finding an alternative to college. One young woman from Phoenix, Arizona landed a construction job right out of high school. She said that in addition to learning the basics, like hanging drywall, she is also learning to run a robot that assists in site layout. She makes $24 an hour and will get the best of both worlds with plans to get a degree in construction management. She stated, β€œIt’s not at all what I was expecting. I’m building skyscrapers and building a career out of it."

It's these same Gen-Zers who see people their age on college campuses simply regurgitating leftist talking points from leftist professors in any given class, protesting and hunger-striking this or that, and majoring in art history and graduating with several hundred thousand dollars in student loan debt β€” that is making them question whether or not college is really for them. For more of them, the decision may be becoming a rather easy one. 


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