Are you wondering if college is the best fit for your teen? What are other options?
An opportunity cost is the forgone benefit that would have been derived from an option other than the one that was chosen. The opportunity costs of college are lost earned income, being behind in savings, and having little to no job experience upon graduation.
Should my kid go to college or not? That is a question that I see all the time in Facebook groups. I hear it in on sidelines at games. I hear teens wondering if college is the right choice for themselves.
The answer is complicated.
Every situation is different, every family is different, and getting to the answer is going to be different for everyone. And FYI -there is no right or wrong here, lots of options though.
What I want people to know is that there are so many awesome jobs out there that DO NOT require college. And, the earning potential is amazing. The benefits are incredible. And, there is no shame AT ALL in not going to college. You can read our story below and why one of our sons decided the opportunity costs of college were too great for him.
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The Opportunity Costs of College: Our story
We have had different post high school experiences with our three sons.
I have one son who graduated from college back in 2020 with a double degree in international business and Spanish translation -he is currently teaching English in Spain and not using his business degree yet. Our youngest son is in college now getting a finance degree.
Here is my middle son’s story… (And, please note that there are so many other career paths, but this is the one that I can speak into.)
My son is in an apprenticeship to be a power lineman. This program will last approximately 4 years -same as college. The difference being that he has been paid from day one and the union automatically puts money into his pension for him. His pay started at over $30/hour, and when he finishes, he will make over $50/hour. There are many opportunities for overtime and extra pay during training and after he finishes for storm duty etc.
In his union, he has a choice between 2 retirement benefit options. The retirement benefit he receives can be 15% to 25% of his gross pay, and it depends on the local union. This amount is paid by the electrical contractors and is not deducted from his paycheck. He will have to stay in the trade for many years to receive this benefit, but it will continue to be fully funded.
He receives health insurance benefits for himself and his dependent family, including health, dental and vision insurance. This insurance is provided 100% by the electrical industry and is not deducted from his paycheck. The health insurance plan provided allows him to see any doctor he wants, anywhere in the country. He did have to work a specific amount of hours before qualifying for this benefit.
Once his training is finished, he can work anywhere, and will be able to make choices about what he wants to do with his training.
**That’s my son on that pole below! Isn’t he handsome??
To even apply to get into this lineman apprenticeship program, he had to obtain a minimum of 450 hours working in the outside line construction industry. This meant that he spent almost a year on a ground crew as a grunt putting in those hours and learning a lot!
There was a live interview. He had to take a test -which he had to pay for. There was an incredibly difficult physical test that had to be passed to get into the apprenticeship.
He also spent some time getting his CDL, which cost about $5000 for the training. (He is very happy he has it, and was glad to have it when he was a groundsman, too.)
During the four year journeyman process, he has to go to a week of academic “in seat” classes in Iowa for 8-10 hours a day twice a year. In between those weeks of academic classes, he has to complete 3 workbooks and know the information well enough to be tested during that week. He has to pass each test in order to move on in the program.
**He just completed an academic week and has tested up to tier 3. The week included 2 lectures each day with a written test from the lecture and what he had studied in the workbooks -that is FIVE days of tests. They also had two pole assessments. which this time, included getting a body sized dummy down from the top of the pole. Finally, this session he also received CPR training with a test following that. This is pretty typical of each week session throughout the program, and it is all cumulative as well.
The thing he has told me more than once is that because he loves what he does -it’s interesting to him now. It’s a lot of study time and work, but he is very motivated. *Note to say: He never really likes school. He was smart, but not motivated.
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What are the opportunity costs of college?
One of the greatest of opportunity costs of college is the loss of four years of income. Even if a student is able to work during the college years, often it is just to make spending money or saving up for the next year’s spending money.
The nice thing about trade schools or certification programs is that often they are for a few months or just a couple of years. Even in my son’s circumstance with a 4 year apprenticeship, he was paid from day one, and received full benefits after he put in a specific amount of hours.
This is definitely not the case for someone who goes to college.
Are you wondering what your son or daughter should do? Are they struggling to make a choice? Are they unsure about the direction that they should go? Our friend Loren can help your family with her services! She has helped my son (Mel) who graduated in 2020 when there were no job fairs or other career counseling available as they quickly tried to get everyone off campus, and then graduated.
Loren can provide career counseling for high school or college kids. She can work with someone looking for the right job, and will help with resume and LinkedIn optimization.
Start this conversation early! Have your middle schooler or high schooler take one of these future career quizzes. They really are helpful if your teen takes it seriously and thinks about their answers.
#1 Opportunity Costs of College: Length of time for college vs. learning a trade
Trade school and various certification programs vary in length of a few months to a few years.
#2 Opportunity Costs of College: On-The-Job Experience
Many certifications and other apprenticeships can last just a few months up to a number of years. There is also the possibility of on the job training for something like construction where you learn as you go. These vary by skill and particular jobs.
For our son, he is learning on the job,
#3 Opportunity Costs of College: Expense
This article may be Buzzfeed, but the stories told here about getting a college degree and/or post grad degree are real…
A typical college degree will cost anywhere from $100,000 on up compared to about $33,000 -this is the largest amount I could find for a trades training program. These are very basic numbers and please do your own research about the schools and/or programs that your student may be interested in. There is always merit aid for college as well as outside scholarship money. Apply, apply, apply! There are scholarships for trade school as well, so google the trade your young person is interested in and put the word scholarship in the search as well. See info about scholarships below.
I am not writing this article to dissuade students from going to college. I am saying, make a plan. Be deliberate. Don’t take on student loan debt, and if you do need loans, then work them off as you go. Pay down the interest each year during college. Look into all college options for the best deal.
Here is an article on the topic of “Does it matter where you go to college?”
Other ways to tackle debt from mounting up:
Work during college. Keep your expenses down. Choose the school that gives the best financial package. Make sure that the job you are working towards will more than pay your salary -needs to include living expenses and the amount of repaying your debt. This means DO THE RESEARCH on what an entry level job will pay a recent grad upon graduation. Many teens (or their parents) have any idea that often their future paycheck will barely pay their living expenses, let alone loan payments…
This post explains what student loan debt is and why you need to pay attention to the numbers.
#4 Opportunity Costs of College: Scholarships and Financial Aid
Scholarships are available for both trade schools and college. Here are some good articles about where to look for those.
What I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Scholarships -Mel wrote this one for Monica at How2WinScholarships
#5 Opportunity Costs of College: Career Focus
By the time someone graduates from college after 4-6 years (on average), they are in debt. They have no job training with the exception of an internship or two. They have not earned income for those years as well.
On the other hand, someone in the trades has finished their program in the same amount of time or less. They have experience as well. And, they have been paid along the way. Often their pay is significant!
#6 Opportunity Costs of College: Certification vs. Degree
A degree is typically four (or more) years of college if you finish the requisite classes.
A certificate is “a document stating you have completed a certain amount of training in preparation for a specific job.” Most often, certification takes much less time to complete.
This article summarizes the difference, and gives examples of each. I know many people who get certificates for new skills to enhance their learning of previous information, Or, to qualify for a different or better job.
I do think that many certification programs are underutilized, and are much more lucrative than many people think. If you search online for many online jobs, the pay ranges from not so much to incredible amounts! That’s my boy on in the bucket below!
*My son on the pole again below!
#7 Opportunity Costs of College: Not all Jobs in Highest Demand require College
Many of the highest demand jobs do NOT require a college degree. Some require an associate’s degree, certification, on-the-job training or a combination of these things. See our list of 90+ High Paying Career Alternatives to College.
**The graphic below has a low estimate of income for the trades. My son started at more than $31/hour to start in his program!
Opportunity Costs of College: Final Thoughts
Here’s the thing… I am not opposed to college!
I have one son who graduated in 2020. He had a double degree in 2 very employable majors: international finance and Spanish translation. He is using his fluency in Spanish in a teaching job abroad and loves it. But, is he using his other degree? Not so much, but he’s happy and employed. And, since he graduated debt free, he is ahead of many of his peers.
Our youngest son is currently a collegiate athlete which, so far, has been a wonderful experience. He is receiving academic aid as well as athletic monies. He is currently planning on a degree in finance, but is really thinking about going into a trade anyway. This is because he is watching the success of his older brother who is loving his job in the trades!
A great resource for beginning those conversations is Mel’s book: College Bound: The Ultimate List Of Conversations To Help Your Teen Through High School.
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