There is a misperception in this country, to the point of being a lie, about education. And that is that a traditional four-year college degree is the goal, and that is what will get people the jobs and money that they want and that the economy wants. This is an exaggeration at best.
For one thing, if you have any kind of liberal arts degree (English, history, the like), it's pretty much guaranteed to be pretty much useless by itself for getting a job. If you do pour a lot more money and time into more education in your chosen liberal arts field, you can rarely get more than a teaching position in a field so glutted with liberal arts doctoral degrees that pay is meager, even if you manage to be one of the few who manage to acquire a tenured position at a respectable university.
Then there are the degrees that expect everyone who gets them to go on for more advanced education. They aren't even meant to be much more than a prerequisite for graduate school. Psychology, pre-med, sociology, pre-law, etc., fit this category. You have to pour a LOT of time, money, and dedication into these fields to get a good degree and therefore be qualified (hopefully) for a job in your chosen field. And if you decide before you're done that you want to do something else, heaven help you. You now have a degree you can't even put on the wall at your Walmart job.
What about STEM, though? Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math--those are sure job-getters, right? While some of those do have a much better vocation rate than liberal arts degrees--especially Computer Science or many types of Engineering--even STEM degrees are not a sure bet. The big research degrees in Science fields require graduate school, and even then often end up with simply university faculty qualifications, which doesn't pay as much as it should.
All this while, for instance, college tuition costs rose nearly 80% from August 2003 and August 2013. Costs of a 4-year education have risen enough that it is now nearly impossible to pay for your school merely with taking part time classes and working on the side. Grants and scholarships can help IF you can get them, but for most students this means student loans to make up for the difference. Considering how hard it is to get a well-paying job with just a bachelor's, how are students supposed to pay off these loans? And what does it teach our young people when we tell them that they must start out their adult lives in debt from the very beginning, just to have the tools to compete in the workforce?
Yet our government, media, and society at large keep pushing for public K-12 schools to prepare kids for college. K-12 education is even seen as 'failing' if students do not go on to a 4-year school.
This is ridiculous.
I'm not proposing that traditional college should be avoided. But it should not be treated as the panacea for what is ailing our economy and society. There are a lot of options that we need to consider alongside a 4-year degree and weigh them carefully.
- Carefully consider the things you want in your life. I don't mean making decisions based on money management and retirement commercials. I mean, decide what is really important to you and plan ahead accordingly. For instance, if financial and time stability (like weekends off or paid vacations or sick leave) are very important to you, you'll probably want to avoid the entrepreneurial and fine arts fields, and you usually have to recognize that you may have to sacrifice some autonomy and deal with more bureaucracies than other fields. Large families, big houses, living in big cities, all are things that cost more as well, so if you want those things you must choose accordingly. You must choose not only what type and level of education you are going to pursue, but you must pursue the field according to what meets your criteria.
- Recognize that most people don't necessarily do what they want to do in life, and that's okay. Say you love music. Some would say you should then pursue a career in music. But you must recognize that some fields (ESPECIALLY anything in the arts) have an extremely low success/return-on-investment rate. Not only do they take many hours of practice and learning, but they often cost a lot in equipment and/or supplies, and even then, things beyond your control (such as how you look, which unfortunately matters, other physical limitations, or connections) can limit your ability to fully succeed in that field. Sometimes things we love must be kept as hobbies while we pursue other things to actually bring home the bacon. Sacrifice is not a bad thing.
- Volunteer. Especially if you are pursuing a career that requires a lot of educational investment, you should volunteer in related areas to see if it feels comfortable to you and if it's something you really want to pursue. Plus, volunteering in your chosen field can network you with connections that will pay off later.
- WORK. Not just working jobs (whether or not you need the money), but how you do your jobs will open doors and opportunities you didn't know you needed. If you take every job you have seriously and try to do more and better than expected, whether or not it seems to connect with your end goal, it will always reflect well on you and help you wherever you go.
- Don't feel bad about pursuing other types of training. Sometimes it can be hard to qualify to get into a 4-year university. Sometimes, even, you might find that you want to do something else, like welding or truck driving, that requires a different type of education. Don't let people put you down or make you feel like you are 'settling.' Often, if you do those type of jobs well (see point #4), you will make far more money out of the gate while having a much lower (or non-existent) debt load when you are done.
- Recognize that a traditional education can have value other than vocational. If you are willing to make the sacrifice of time and money for something that won't pay you back in money, that's fine. Just make sure you go in with both eyes open and know that when you choose certain degrees, you are not necessarily choosing a career path.