What We Need to Talk: College readers really think about higher ed

What you really think about college

I’ve gotten so many amazing reactions on social media since I launched my new multimedia project, We Need To Talk: College, earlier this month. I’ve heard from anxious parents, grateful school counselors, and folks eager to share their own experiences with paying for college. I’ve even been asked if the families featured in the videos were real. (Yes, they are!) I’ve also noticed a few recurring comments questioning whether college is worth the cost and promoting alternatives.

Because I love a good conversation, I thought I’d address two of these comments here.

“College is only worth it if you get a degree with high percentage of employment and income. Debt is not OK.”


—Jason Jones

It’s true that college tuitions have skyrocketed in the past few decades. The sticker prices often come as a shock to families. A private four-year college with room and board costs more than $48,000 per year on average; even an in-state public school averages more than $21,000. And the Student Debt Crisis is an evergreen story, with cautionary tales of Library Science majors who are $100,000 in the hole. That said, even after accounting for student debt and inflation, college graduates still earn an average of $300,000 more over their lifetimes than those who didn’t go to college, according to the Federal Reserve of New York. This doesn’t mean that you and your kid should ignore tuition costs when deciding on higher ed—you should always think about what school will give you the most education value for your money, and factor in financial aid when evaluating your options. But needing to take out student loans is not a reason to avoid college altogether—especially if you limit your borrowing to low-rate federal student loans. A good rule of thumb from college expert Mark Kantrowitz: Don’t take out more debt than your expected starting salary out of college. (You can compare school costs and post-graduation salaries on the government’s College Scorecard.)

And yes, your kid’s degree can help determine what kind of salary she can expect after graduation—and certain majors can yield higher incomes. To see this in action, you and your kid can take a look at this Brookings Institute tool based on data about degrees and typical career paths. As expected, STEM degrees tend to demand higher starting salaries than liberal arts majors. However, take this all with a grain of salt—by the time your kid graduates, the job market may look a little different. Improvements in automation and artificial intelligence mean soft skills are becoming more valuable every day, so if your kid is more of a humanities type, that doesn’t spell financial doom. (And, if he can swing it, maybe suggest a double major or minor in a hard skill.)

“He can go to a trade school and end up making $50,000 to $70,000 a year with minimal debt for education…The ones that go to college are not always the smartest people… Choose wisely!!”


—Larry E. Carson

While college is the best route for most high school kids, there are those who may benefit from taking an alternative path in higher education. But the key here is higher education. Stopping at high school is rarely, if ever, the right choice. Students who are certain they want to enter skilled trades such as electrical infrastructure, plumbing, construction work, and industrial operations will require specialized training—which can take the form of an associate’s degree at a vocational school or even an apprenticeship. Once you’ve learned the skills and are in the workforce, these blue-collar jobs can pay well. Median earnings for young people with associate’s degrees are $36,940—and while less that’s than the $53,840 earned on average by those with a bachelor’s, entering higher-paying specialties like electrical repairs or nuclear power plant operations can significantly boost salaries to an average of $77,770 or $94,350 or a year. As with universities, however, make sure to do your research on a trade school’s graduation rates and job placement after school.

As for the cost: Trade schools typically offer two-year programs for about $33,000 total before living expenses, or $16,500 per year. So if public and community colleges are on the table, it’s not necessarily true that you will graduate from a trade school with less debt than you would from a four-year-college. And even private universities can offer generous scholarships and grants, so if your kid isn’t 100% certain they want to enter a skilled trade, it’s still worth applying to college just to get a sense of the comparative final sticker prices. You may find having an affordable degree followed by an apprenticeship in a high-wage blue-collar profession offers the best of both worlds.

(And if your kid wants to skip college to Zuckerberg it out as an entrepreneur or coding whiz, well, that’s another story.)

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