Not sure about college? What about learning a trade?

The idea that attending college is a gateway to the middle class that will lead to a successful, fulfilling career has been the social norm in the post-World War II era. But these days, as the cost of a degree and student debt-loads have spiked, some of the advantages of going to college have diminished, while the pressure from society for students to attend has not. 

Students around the country are taking on crippling levels of debt before they even get the opportunity to enter the job market. Over 55% of students at four-year colleges take out loans, and their average debt is $32,730. That goes as high as $203,000 for medical students and $165,000 for law students when they graduate–and over 95% of law students and 73% of medical students take out loans.  

There are other options, including going into a trade, that could make more sense for teenagers and young adults seeking a secure and rewarding livelihood. Here are some things to consider while you’re struggling to figure out your next steps in life:

What’s your motivation?

There are loads of students whose reasons to attend college arise solely from the influence of the people around them. Many teenagers and young adults say they feel intense pressure to earn a college degree to get ahead in life, especially if they come from families that didn’t have the opportunity.

“There’s a lot of pressure … Each generation has to be twice as successful as the last, because if we aren’t, we don’t have the generational wealth to fall back on,” said Diego Shipmon, a rising senior at the private Galloway School, who will be a first-generation college student if he decides to attend.  

Going to college to make the important people in your life proud is a completely valid motivation, but it’s also important to ask yourself whether you’ll find fulfillment in the decision.

College isn’t cheap, and it isn’t easy. And, despite what your parents or other family members might say, getting a college degree is no longer a guaranteed ticket to a secure, sustainable living situation.

The federal student loan program, which started in 1958, has made college accessible to new generations of Americans. In 1940, less than 5% of adults over age 25 had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher–and now about 42% of this group has a college degree of some type. 

The national student debt crisis affects countless college graduates for years after they finish their education, and it is only worsening over time. Average student debt has increased by 2,807% in actual dollars since 1970, without accounting for inflation, and by 317% when inflation is factored in.  

To reap the benefit of your college experience, you’ll have to take initiative and truly put your best foot forward. You must be willing to discipline yourself to get your work done, make the effort to form meaningful relationships, and consciously network to secure internships and set yourself up for a good job upon graduation. 

That’s a lot. If you aren’t passionate about your college experience, you will be overwhelmed–first, mentally and physically, and later, financially. For your future success, it’s important to put yourself in an environment that supports your growth and well-being as a person–whether that place is college or not. 

There are other options

Deciding to forgo college altogether or taking an unconventional path to get there will not prevent you from finding success in the rest of your life.

“I think college is great for that upper 30% of high school students. For the rest of them, I’m not so sure it’s the right move, said Randy Beall of the Atlanta and North Georgia Building Trades Council which sponsors apprenticeship programs for construction trades like plumbers, electricians, pipefitters, and glaziers.

“I know it’s not the right move for half of [highschool students]. Some of them benefit, but it’s just not the only route.” said Beall, who is the ANGBTC’s business manager. 

Learning a skilled trade could be a great option. For middle-class youth with parents in professional jobs, there can be some stigma around deciding to learn a trade instead of going to college. That said, it provides just as legitimate a pathway to a comfortable middle-class lifestyle–and it could be a much faster route without having to take on a lot of debt. 

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, which grants credentials in a wide range of industries through its Registered Apprenticeship Program, 93% of people who complete a registered apprenticeship are stably employed with an average salary of $77,000.

Highly skilled trade jobs in construction, health care and other industries can pay average annual salaries of over $100,000 for specialists such as power plant operators, elevator mechanics, electric linemen, construction managers, nuclear medicine technicians, aircraft technicians, radiation therapists, and millwrights. 

What’s more, it could be enjoyable work, if you don’t want to sit in an office all day. Do you like taking things apart to see how they work? What about becoming a millwright? Their entire job is to put together and take apart machinery on construction sites and in factories. 

There is also a shortage of skilled workers in the construction trades right now, so there’s a lot of opportunity in Atlanta for these jobs, Beall and other members of the local building trades council explain in a short video

The average cost for a four-year apprenticeship program in the country is $33,000

Some union apprenticeships, such as the ones provided through the Atlanta and North Georgia Building Trades Council, offer free training through their registered apprenticeship programs–and allow trainees to get paid for working as they learn.

“We provide a no-debt training program. The only fees that are generally paid by a person entering the apprenticeships is a $50 application fee,” Beall said.

Beall’s group supports a nonprofit, the Georgia Building Trades Academy, that offers a free, nine-month program to prepare youth for a registered apprenticeship program. It teaches math and reading skills, in addition to construction basics, and offers a GED course for a high-school equivalency diploma.

A gap year? 

If you are unsure of your aspirations for the future but are interested in college, taking a “gap year” to work at an internship or job and learn whether or not what you think is your dream career really is can be valuable. Taking a year to work can also be a great way to delay your college transition if you’re not ready.

Despite the unserious reputation they sometimes get, students who choose to take gap years maintain higher graduation rates and GPAs on average than other students. Several colleges, such as Duke, Princeton, and American also provide dedicated programs to defray expenses and make internships or volunteer service doable for gap-year students. 

Is a prestigious degree worth it? 

If you do decide that college is something you want to do, make sure you put yourself in the best position to succeed.

Spending tens of thousands of dollars on a “prestigious” undergraduate education might be unwise, even though there is great pressure on young people to do so–especially for those planning to pursue advanced degrees in medicine, law or a masters or Ph.D. in other fields.

There are many people who willingly saddle themselves with six-figure debt  to go to a “prestigious” college, because they think it’s necessary  for getting into a good law or medical school.

While doing well at a renowned university can give you a slight advantage in applying to graduate schools, your school’s prestige factor is far from the most important one.

“The two things that are the greatest predictors of where you’re going to get into law school are your grades coming out of undergrad, and how well you do on your LSAT [aptitude exam],” said Nike Opradian, a lawyer in Washington D.C. who is a Harvard Law School graduate.

“If you do well at your undergrad [school], you’re going to put yourself in a good position anyways,” Opradian said, whether your aim is law school or some other graduate program.

If you achieve high LSAT or MCAT scores and maintain a strong GPA at a “less prestigious” college, she explained, then you will be a strong candidate for top law or medical schools–and a much stronger candidate than someone who attends an Ivy League university, but receives worse marks.

Even if you don’t have an advanced degree in mind when deciding on a college, the cost, location,  and your overall comfort level still matter as much or more than its reputation.

Struggling to keep up with classes and difficulty meeting financial demands are repeatedly listed as the two biggest reasons people drop out of college. You are more likely to be successful at a Top-200 school where you feel comfortable and supported than at a Top-25 school where you feel academically, socially, and financially overwhelmed.

WANT TO LEARN MORE? 

  • Here’s information from Apprenticeship.gov on Registered Apprenticeships, which are approved and credentialed by the U.S. Department of Labor.
  • Here are job descriptions and explainer videos for the many unionized construction trades that “provide the skills to pay the bills.” All are members of the Atlanta and North Georgia Building Trades Council and its subsidiary website, GeorgiaConstructionCareers.com.
  • Randy Beall from the local building trades council and Rut Walker of Union Up, a communications firm for unions, host a video series, Talkin’ Trades, that covers everything from the need for plumbers in Atlanta to how apprenticeships work, and what the differences are for union and non-union workers in construction trades.    
  • Georgia Construction Careers has a YouTube channel with lots more videos. 

Kailen Hicks, a senior at Galloway School, just completed a summer internship with Atlanta Civic Circle.

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