College or Not?

Dennis E. Quillen

SEVERAL MILLION households every year deal with a crucial decision involving their teenage children. Will their kids head to college, enter the labor force, join the military or perhaps do something different entirely? Often, this involves weighing the costs and benefits of a college education vs. the immediate income from getting a job.

About two-thirds of high school graduates end up being college freshmen. The remaining third defer or never go to college, but they can still end up earning above-average incomes. My focus today is on this second group.

Going directly into the labor force means getting immediate real income, perhaps for the first time. Teens may gain both financial and social independence, jumpstarting their entry into adulthood. Getting that early start can provide more years of on-the-job experience, as well as early opportunities for promotions and pay raises. The downside: A bad career decision may condemn these young adults to a lifetime of below-average wages and job dissatisfaction.

Indeed, numerous studies show that, for most individuals, non-college jobs aren’t a winning proposition. College graduates typically enjoy lifetime earnings well above those of non-college individuals. If you look at total career earnings minus college costs, college students with a bachelor’s degree will, on average, catch up with non-college workers by age 30—and thereafter will pull ahead.

But the averages can be deceiving. Trying to decide whether to enter the workforce after high school? Here are five questions to ask yourself:

  1. Would a college degree really help you, given your desired career? Truth is, many college-educated individuals earn less than non-college individuals. There are quite a few blue-collar jobs that pay more than those requiring a degree. Check out the Occupational Outlook Handbook and Occupational Employment Statistics put out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Do an informal breakeven analysis to see how your proposed non-college career might compare with a post-college career. There’s a number of blue-collar job categories that currently provide above-average incomes, including industries such as railroads, urban transit, water commerce, mining (especially oil and gas) and heavy construction.

  1. Do you really know what you’re getting into? Spend time doing a thorough online search on your chosen career path. Learn all you can about your specific area of interest, and its current and future economic prospects.

Talk with individuals already working in your proposed job area. If possible, try to spend an entire shift observing first-hand what electricians, plumbers or heavy-equipment operators actually do. Ask them what they like the best and least about their jobs. Inquire about the biggest surprises and disappointments.

  1. What are the hidden expenses associated with the job? Consider tools and equipment purchases, union dues, uniform requirements, use of your own vehicle and commuting costs. But also ask about job “perks” that may supplement basic earnings.
  2. What does the job pay? Get accurate data on wages and salaries in your area. National averages may be far different from local conditions, especially in low-wage regions. Are you willing to relocate to get the job you’re interested in—or an income that’s more to your liking?
  3. Could you lead the life you want on your likely earnings? Many teenagers have been spoiled by living subsidized at home and are unprepared for the adult economic world. Estimate your living expenses, including all your wants and needs, and compare that number with your likely after-tax earnings. Have the paramedics on standby—because it’s almost certain your net income will fall miserably short of your total expenses.

It’s decision time. Will the job work for you? What about that spiffy apartment and pool? How about the car you want? How about dozens of other perceived “requirements”? Start cutting budget items left and right. Now ask yourself: Do you still want that job—or any non-college job? Or do you want to reconsider going to college?

Even if you decide to head into the workforce after high school, keep open the possibility of college enrollment at a later date. A few years in the real world may make college seem far more appealing. I had a high IQ classmate who took a blue-collar union job right out of high school. Years later, I learned that he made a career change and ended up with a PhD in engineering.

Dennis E. Quillen is a retired economic geographer and university professor. He loves blackjack and long-term investing. His previous articles include Saving TimeFood for Thought and Cutting the Bonds.

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Steve O
Steve O
1 year ago

college students with a bachelor’s degree will, on average, catch up with non-college workers by age 30—and thereafter will pull ahead.

Did the study subtract 4 -5 years of lost wages and the total cost of college including extras insurances, technology, cars,,,,,,,,? I think the study is based on old data or current everyone gets a trophy life.
Perhaps the year after HS should be go to work and live independent of parents and pay ALL your own bills for real life experience. In other words go get a job and be totally cut off from others help for one to two years. Then from your savings attend college and pay your own way with part time job.

40 years as supervisor this type of real life experience is what I looked for in a resume. Parents paid for everything and good grades not useful in work force.

I took a management science course 1976 where the main project was to do what this study should have done. My situation Master plumber 1975, AAS chemical engineering 1975, working on BA chemistry 1976 what amounts of money will be earned and lost/spent.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve O
3 years ago

For many young people, college is not a good investment. If you absolutely have to go that $70k/year private university, if you want to major in art, journalism, literature, anthropology, if you don’t have the faintest idea of who you are and what you want to do, spending $70k a year to figure that out is a losing proposition. Even in many states, a public university is $20k+ a year. Borrow most of what you need for college, and the pain is multiplied by 3.

Now, if you are interested in working right out of high school, having no goals is equally bad. But, if you’re willing to learn a trade, especially construction and heavy manufacturing trades (e.g. welding, plumbing, electrician), you can get to approach $100k income (and above) by your late 20’s or early 30’s, significantly above median income. Don’t like working in the field? Look at becoming a medical technician (imaging, physical therapy, OR assistant). Go to community college and become certified as a network administrator, keep your eyes open and let your career get into cybersecurity, AI, database management.

College does pay off – but for those who have aptitude for technically complex occupations (software development, engineering, biotech); occupations with credential screening (accounting, medicine, law); or occupations where high-level networks are important (banking, consulting, government) will pay off. But if you’re not in one of those categories, there’s likely other paths to career success.

3 years ago

Military right out of high school also offers vocational training & GI Bill benefits for those heading back to school afterwards.

In many states joining the National Guard will pay for tuition/fees for in-state public schools for those wanting to head straight into college.

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