Forgoing College Can Make Sense

College is still the safest way to a good income and career. But for some students, other options will also lead to success.

Jordan Boone did everything right. She studied hard in high school, earning the attention of her teachers and guidance counselors. She enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Kiplinger's long-standing best-value school. And in May, she graduated with a degree in environmental studies -- plus $28,000 in debt and a very critical take on the economics of education.

"No piece of paper is worth your quality of life and peace of mind," she tweeted after getting her diploma in the mail. "College was fine, but it wasn't worth the price. How much do you lose to debt? How much of yourself do you lose to stress?"

Boone is hardly alone in her doubts. Although conventional wisdom has long dictated that young people need a four-year degree to succeed, college students and their parents have never had better reason to seek alternative paths. Today, the average college student who takes out loans graduates with more than $25,000 in debt. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate for college grads sticks at nearly 9%, about the same as for the general population. In July 2012, a Country Financial poll found that only 57% of Americans consider college a good investment, down from 81% in 2008.

Sure, this lack of confidence reflects the economic uncertainties of our time -- a sudden, society-wide agnosticism toward the financial institutions and rules we played by before the recession. But it also illustrates an important reality for young people: Smart, secure alternatives to college do exist. And whether students can't afford a four-year degree or simply think it's not for them, forgoing college doesn't necessarily doom their future careers.

Making It Without a Degree

Before he went on to co-found Apple, Steve Jobs was a first-semester college drop-out. He audited calligraphy classes. He dropped in on a rag-tag hobbyist group called the Homebrew Computer Club. One thing he didn't do? Seek out any kind of formal, post-secondary degree.

Precious few of us can hope to follow Jobs’s meteoric rise. But even closer to earth, plenty of high-school grads parlay their diplomas into successful careers. In fact, a full 14% of high school graduates make as much as or more than $2.9 million, the median lifetime earnings for someone with a bachelor's degree.

Jumping into the workforce without a degree is no sure thing, but picking the right field helps. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, three professions that don’t require college degrees -- commercial pilot, telecommunications installer and wholesale sales rep -- promise median salaries similar or greater to college grads. Other no-degree fields have big salary potential, if not at the median level: Top-tier electricians and construction inspectors both make more than $80,000 a year.

Most of these jobs require only experiential or on-the-job training -- a practice that's also in vogue in several fields outside of construction and sales. Peter Thiel, the co-founder of Paypal, launched a fellowship program in 2010 to encourage college students to drop out of school and start their own tech projects. (Michael Dell, Bill Gates and Tumblr founder David Karp all went that route.)

Diving right into the workforce can also make sense for musicians and artists, especially considering that the typical art-school grad makes only $44,000. Dennis Kane, a Washington, D.C.-based sound engineer, knew he wanted to go into music when he dropped out of art school 22 years ago. His parents weren't pleased, but Kane worked his way through recording studios and clubs around D.C. before eventually becoming the head audio engineer at one of the city's foremost indie venues. He now mixes sound for National Geographic and, yes, makes more than the average four-year college grad.

"I will say that I worked my butt off for many, many years and didn't earn a whole lot of money for a long time," Kane says. "But I've met loads of amazingly creative people who have taught me so many interesting things, and I don't have any student loans. I wouldn't change a thing."

Getting Technical

Technical school isn't what it used to be. For one thing, it's no longer called technical school. The much-maligned alternative to a four-year degree now goes by "career and technical education," or CTE, and it's gaining ground among the educational experts and guidance counselors who once clucked their tongues at it. In fact, a September 2012 report from Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce found that there are 29 million middle-class jobs for people with only CTE training. Do the math -- that's 21% of all jobs in the U.S.

CTE encompasses pretty much everything that a traditional four-year degree doesn't: automotive and aviation schools; certificate programs in vocations such as cosmetology and computer services; industry-sponsored apprenticeship and training programs; and certain two-year, non-humanities degrees. While technical programs are often housed in community colleges, they can also grow out of high schools, technical schools and corporations. And they are indeed growing. In the U.S., the number of less-than-four-year institutions offering CTE programs increased every year between 2001 and 2006, the latest data available. (You might have heard some buzz about that a few years ago, after New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg announced massive expansions to the city's CTE offerings.)

What explains CTE's newfound popularity? Personal economics are at least partially responsible. One or two years of school are cheaper than four and still boost annual earnings by an average of $5,000. But changes in the wider job market have also created thousands of jobs for CTE-educated workers to fill. As baby-boomers age, for instance, hospitals, doctors' offices and nursing homes need more medical assistants. And as the population grows and begins to demand things such as environmentally friendly office buildings, plumbers, electricians and other skilled construction workers will find plenty of work.

In fact, some CTE grads know they'll have jobs as soon as they leave school. Douglas Rodriguez, 17, just wrapped up his first year at a machinist program in Charlotte, N.C. He'll leave the program with a community-college degree, years of work experience and a guaranteed job at the Siemens Energy plant in Charlotte.

"I don't know what I'd be doing if I wasn't here, but I know I'd be in debt," he says. In fact, before he heard about the Siemens program, he thought about going to MIT. The current price tag on a four-year degree there is nearly $230,000.

College Can Be Worth It

At the end of the day, of course, the safest path to a career still leads through the Ivory Tower. The median pay for a high-school grad is $638 a week, while the median pay for a four-year-college grad is $1,053. Over a lifetime, that gap adds up to between one-half million and one million dollars, depending on whom you ask. College grads also say they're happier with their jobs and finances, and that they feel more mature because of their experiences at school. But these, of course, are the medians, and there are wide ranges around them.

Boone, the UNC grad, took some flack from her friends for her anti-college Twitter rant. In hindsight, she says, she wouldn't forgo her degree, which helped her land a job with AmeriCorps. What she does wish, though, is that she'd been more economical, maybe starting out in community college or attending school in-state.

Still, she warns, college doesn't deserve the unquestioning reverence it's given. It’s a lesson for everyone, regardless of whether and where they go to school. "I definitely think that in today's world, some sort of degree helps people take you seriously," she says. "But a four-year liberal arts education isn't the only one."

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