In many families today, college is a non-negotiable. It’s just assumed that as soon as high school is over, students will immediately head to the hallowed halls of high education.

For many generations, this wasn’t the case. It wasn’t all that long ago that very few Americans had access to a college education. But today, 53.7% of Americans have college degrees or industry standard certifications, a jump of almost 16% from 2009. In many industries, it’s simply an expected asset to enter the door for particular opportunities and positions. It’s estimated that over a lifetime, an individual with a college degree will earn 1.2 million dollars more than those who only hold a high school diploma.

With those kinds of numbers at play, it’s no wonder that many parents today want their kids to head to university campuses. 91% of parents expect their kids to earn at least a bachelor’s degree post-high school.

Seems like a slam dunk, right?

Well, not so fast.

There are several things to consider when it comes to a college education. Depending on the career someone wants to go into, there may not be a need for a university experience. With certification programs in niche areas growing in importance, with the exploding costs of attending college, and with the booming entrepreneurial economy, there are good reasons some individuals are hitting the pause button on college.

  • Rising costs: Yes, college graduates continue to earn more over their lifetimes. However, this can be offset by college debt. Over 45 million Americans have student loan debt; over 92% of college graduates have federal college debt. Those who attend public universities have an average of $37,000 in loans, while those who attend private universities have an average of almost $55,000 in loans. And 2.9 million people have over $100,000 in student loan debt. Add to that the percentage rates on those loans, and the numbers rocket up again. It’s important to get an accurate picture of what the realities around the cost of a degree as compared to the field someone is aspiring to really is. For example, someone choosing to go into public education as a teacher could significantly hamstring themselves financially for decades if they choose to go to an expensive private university and take out numerous student loans with high-interest rates; their overall income isn’t commiserate with the amount of money being spent on the degree that qualifies them to be in the career.
  • Online universities can offer an affordable and efficient means of earning a degree. While they are not the right fit for every student, more and more students are utilizing online college programs to help them achieve their goals.
  • Conversely, there are certification programs and licensing paths that can take someone directly to the career they want to pursue without incurring heavy debt loads. For example, computer coding certification programs have grown in validity and popularity in the last few years and position people for solid, lucrative careers. Google now offers a variety of career certification programs that help people find positions in a variety of areas in IT. These programs are around $39 a month and are self-paced; this means if you finish certification in 6 months, your average cost would be about $240 for the completed certification.
  • The skilled trades field continues to be in demand as well. Economists report that because of the focus in the past few decades on college education, it has left the skilled trades workforce short of needed workers. Added to that is the aging of the current skilled trade workforce, and what remains are many positions needing to be filled. Many trade skills are a fraction of the cost of traditional college.

“An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.” – Benjamin Franklin

  • Actual interests and gifts: There is the theory of what your student should aspire to be…and then there’s how they are actually wired, what they’re truly good at, and what fascinates them. We spend a significant portion of our lives at work and today’s newest young adult generation is focused on finding work that is rewarding and allows them strong work/life balance.
  • Timing: While it’s something of a rite of passage for American teens to enter college immediately upon graduating from college, there’s nothing that says this is the way it needs to be. Some students may benefit greatly from taking some time work in a job which helps them clarify what they are wanting moving forward. Other students may need a little more time to mature before significant money is spent on university classes. The number of students taking a gap year between high school and college doubled in 2020-2021. While this jump is likely influenced by the pandemic, there are also important elements to this increase. As college costs continue to climb, parents and students need to be thoughtful with their education dollars. For a student who doesn’t feel clear yet on their objectives and goals, going to college immediately following high school simply because it’s the trend might not be the best financial or personal development decision.

A college education is not the only measure of career fulfillment or success. Many of today’s top business owners may have a few college credits to their name, but many jumped from a lackluster class attendance record to chasing entrepreneurial inspiration. Ultimately, the decision to go to college or not should be based on careful consideration of one’s career goals, interests, aptitudes, financial situation, and personal circumstances. For parents, it’s important to be clear about your expectations for your child’s financial and educational independence. For students, make your time after high school matter. Talk with a career counselor, take some time to get some on-the-job experience in the field you think you’re interested in, and take a realistic look at the financial landscape.