Vocational Training Can Beat the Old College Try

I read several things this week that raised my blood pressure again about the student loan debt scam that so many colleges are running on many students. 

First, I read an column by John Stossel (of 20/20 fame) published at the Town Hall called the “College Scam.”  Stossel’s piece contains information that reinforces my belief that too many people go to college to begin with.  For them, going after the B.S. degree is not a good educational or money strategy.   Indeed, Stossel quotes one educational consultant who says the B.S. degree is “America’s most overrated product.” 

The Stossel article also cites this 2008 survey in which students who had attended college were asked if they would go their college again.  40% said no.   They had either picked the wrong 4-year college or would have been happier at a local community college or technical school.

Then there is that worn out mantra that college graduates have lifetime earnings that exceed those of non-graduates by at least $1 million.  That statistic is grossly misused by the colleges as well.  First, it is a statistical mean that is heavily skewed upward by data that includes the extreme top multi-millionaire earners.  Second, as Stossel’ s educational consultant points out, many financially successful college graduates would have been equally successful – based on their personal qualities – had they not gone to college. 

The second article I read was from CNN, reporting the difficulties of an unemployed 35 year old.  She had left her $80,000/year job.  Why?  To attend law school, which she ended up not liking after the first year.  Now she is broke and can’t find work.   Please don’t go law school for the money Please.  For that matter, please think three or four times (or more) before throwing any of your hard-earned money into a costly MBA program.

The third article – which is more to the point of this post – is from Forbes, reporting on occupations in which you can earn a six figure income without a college degree.   These are quality jobs for which a specialized two year degree or certificate program from a local community college, technical college, or vocational school is all you need.  Interestingly, the survey (linked above) reports the highest satisfaction levels by students who attended community colleges.  You can find more data on occupations and earnings at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Before some of you respond with testimony to the non-tangible benefits of a four-year college degree, let’s please be honest about it.  Many (perhaps most) students go to college to increase their earning capacity.  That’s why colleges keep hitting us over the head with the “million dollar future” statistic.  If we want to focus on the intangible benefits of a college education, then let’s ban the continued misuse of the earnings statistics.

What people seem to overlook is that colleges and universities are part of a competitive industry just like any other.  This means that they have two overriding goals:  (1) to justify and sustain their continued existence; and (2) to market themselves to prospective students to get those precious tuition dollars.  What they don’t tell these prospective students are key facts – such as that all of you don’t really need to go to college and that many of you will be unhappy that you did.   As the Stossel piece reminds us, high school students in the bottom 40% of their class are highly unlikely to graduate from college, even after trying for 8 years.  Yet many colleges heavily market themselves to these same students when in fact many of them would be much better off with vocational training (and without the student loan debt.)

Sadly, the 2009 stimulus package includes even more money intended to herd all high school graduates along a path through a four year college, as if that were the only path.   What the stimulus plan should fund instead are “college and money truth squads.”  Their mission would be to counteract the misleading marketing pitches from self-interested universities while explaining that there are other, less costly (and sometimes better) vocational training options out there.

Image credit:  Sigurd Decroos

Feed Mr. ToughMoneyLove

FREE UPDATES: If you enjoyed this, please subscribe to receive the newest hard truth from Mr. ToughMoneyLove automatically by RSS feed (what is RSS?) or by spam-free Email.

  • Banner


17 Responses to “Vocational Training Can Beat the Old College Try”
  1. No Debt Plan says:

    It is quite the conundrum. I’m finishing up my MBA after the summer term, I have a BS in Management as well.

    I would go back to college for the experience, but I would go to a state school to save $$$.

    With my MBA I am only paying for about 1/3 of it, so I figured an inexpensive degree that sets me apart isn’t half bad.

    If I could go back and do it all again, I would do something I loved or get involved with real serious IT work — it’s always going to be around. The problem with that is 8 years ago there is no way to tell what is going to be popular today.

    As a recruiter we also run into clients who put degrees up on a pedestal. If someone doesn’t have a degree, it’s suddenly a big problem.

  2. money market trader says:

    i have mutliple masters degrees and make good money. however, if i were to do it again, i would go to my state school to study either accounting or actuarial math and then follow one of those career paths. the professional certification (equiv to graduate work) is done on company time and company dime. good, stable income.

  3. money market trader says:

    forgot: portable, well defined skill set and geographic flexibility (incl international).

  4. “First, it is a statistical mean that is heavily skewed upward by data that includes the extreme top multi-millionaire earners.”

    You don’t think there are ‘extreme top multi-millionaire earners’ in the non-graduate demo either? Unfortunately, the number is probably spot on.

    Then you cite the Yahoo! article about “six figure income without a college degree” If you really look at the article, it discusses the 75th and 90th percentile. Only the top 2 have median incomes in six figures.

    Your Idea is sound(as usual) Mr.TML I agree with you that most people don’t need college, and colleges are way over priced. But some of your data is a bit weak.

    We should be more focused on happiness than money anyway. Some people would benefit from spending less than they would from earning more. Don’t you agree?

  5. TMN says:

    “Life experience” and “higher earnings” are both bad reasons to go to college. One that very seldom gets mentioned, though, and is in my opinion the only legitimate reason to go to college, is that you want to learn things.

  6. No Debt: I agree that an MBA that doesn’t cost much in money or opportunity (missing income) can’t hurt, unless it overqualifies you.

    Money market trader: Great point about graduate level certificate programs. Cuts the fluff and goes straight to the skills you need to have.

    Nate: I think the data I used are fine. I suspect that there are lot more super-earners in the college graduate pool which tends to distort the data. As for the Forbes data, those students with the personal attributes to attend and graduate from college would probably end up in the top percentiles for non-degreed positions anyway. They just saved themselves the college time and money to get there.

  7. goldenrail says:

    When I was in the plan-your-future part of high school, I wanted to be an electrician. I did well in my shop classes and loved them. Mommy and Daddy said no, I had to “make something” of my life. So, here I am in law school….

    (though I do enjoy it a lot and am very excited about where I’m headed)

  8. I want to so dearly disagree with the premise of this post. But I can’t. I went to a school where it’s rare to graduate in 4 years, and many who actually finish stay in town and work as bar tenders and drink servers. Moreover, as a decently paid individual I’ve met others my age with 2 year degrees already making more than me. This is especially true in hospitals. Good post, I loved your thoughts.

  9. In addition to the misleading marketing by post-secondary institutions, social pressures and expectations also play a huge role in herding people into colleges. While things are very slowly changing, for quite some time the expectation was that if you were “smart” (and I use that term very loosely) you were expected to go for a degree; if you weren’t, then a trade was a better option. This is a dynamic that has been pushed by parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and yes, colleges themselves. Students who do well academically aren’t just pushed towards college, they’re often active dissuaded from pursuing other options.

    Ironically, most trades workers can make as much or more money than many “professionals”, especially in the early years. When the opportunity cost is taken into account, the difference is even greater.

  10. Tom says:

    I went to University and studied business solely for the money … would I do it again? Nope.
    First of all, I don’t love what I do, and secondly, my brother – who works in a trade – makes almost as much as I do.
    Having said that, I’m glad I get to work indoors and I do have the choice on where to work.
    I should have gone to theatre school, I think.

  11. FV says:

    The best advice I received when I emigrated to this country was to attend a vocational program offered by a community college. I’ve graduated with an Associate degree in Cardiovascular Technology and no college debt. I’ve been doing echocardiograms in a hospital for 13 years now and I make close to 100k/year (including OT and call back pay)…I find it difficult to understand why so many people look down on community colleges when they offer such a good value for a relatively inexpensive tuition.

  12. kitty says:

    @TMN: ““Life experience” and “higher earnings” are both bad reasons to go to college. One that very seldom gets mentioned, though, and is in my opinion the only legitimate reason to go to college, is that you want to learn things.”

    I couldn’t agree more. I’d add that you want to learn things that you plan to use in your career. Like engineering if this is what you want to do or biology/chemistry if you want to be a chemist or get a PhD and research new drugs or go to medical school. Even English if you want to be an English teacher, a reporter, or a writer (assuming you have more talent than millions of others and realize that you may not make it) or a journalist, etc. You also have to research the field you plan to major in, learn in advance about job opportunities, salaries, and plan accordingly. You also need to be realistic about your abilities and talent (if applicable).

    I have an MS/CS and I don’t think I could do the same job I am doing – sofware R&D in a research lab of a Fortune 500 technology company – without my degree. I am sure there are software engineers without a degree, but their choice of jobs is limited compared to those with a degree. Even if they are super-smart, they always have to prove themselves, and all things being equal, someone with a degree will get a job.

    “I should have gone to theatre school, I think.”
    Lot of actors are working as waiters in NYC. If you think you have talent, couldn’t you just take some acting classes and go to auditions? I don’t believe they ask for a degree on an audition…

    College degree can be an asset – if it leads to a career in the field. Otherwise, you are just paying a lot of money to learn more about your hobby. A lot of fun if you have money, but pretty risky if you don’t.

  13. MasterPo says:

    I can only tell you this from personal experience.

    Yes, people with vocational training do usually start out making more and rise faster in a shorter period if time. But from what I’ve seen they cap-out at some max level *much* sooner.

    Also, I have been able to apply for positions because of having a college degree that someone without a 4-yr degree wouldn’t even get the application reviewed. That alone is an advantage.

  14. Jimbo says:

    Don’t get me started. I have a 4 year engineering degree and was always told “this country only produces 40% of the engineers it requires”. I used the military to help pay for college, and my Guard unit was activated for a year 2 weeks before I graduated.

    The summer before I left a subcontractor for Chrysler wanted to hire me “right away” until they found out I was only a senior in college. After I got back the only job I could get (that needed a degree and not even my degree) was as a teacher.

    Teachers in my state get paid so poorly I went back into the military just to pay the bills. I just found out last weekend a friend of ny brothers – whom I helped get through engineering classes – got two of the jobs I had been applying for and helped another company develop the land I had been living on.

    Apparently no one in my area is willing to hire an engineer who didn’t start working as an engineer right out of college, or who won’t take a drastic pay cut.

    I am glad I have a job in the face of layoffs, but it still angers me.

  15. Dale Carter says:

    As with any other life decision, a person has to sit down, assess their strengths, weaknesses and goals (both career and personal). That should guide them to the right educational path for them.
    I fully believe my husband would not have survived 4 layoffs in his career (he is now 63) without his engineering degree from the US Naval Academy. He was told this was a differentiator by hiring managers.
    I had a long work career, finished an MBA late in life (because I love learning) from a state university. I just resigned a position with a major consulting firm so I could give back in teaching.
    Everyone’s journey is unique; don’t regret what you’ve lived through. Use that knowledge to make better choices in the future.

  16. Art J says:

    I suspect a bit of double speak here. In your piece on the GM retiree losing their pension, didn’t you say shame on them for keeping their heads in the sand? Basically deriding them for not getting better educated so as to find work elsewhere?

    Now you tell them not to go to college. This is where a lot of trade workers go to make decent money. Is the idea that they should be content low paid workers with few benefits?

  17. Art: I don’t think my thoughts are inconsistent. I did say that an early retiree needs a Plan B. Ig funds are tight, going back for a 4-year degree probably is not a good Plan B because of the out-of-pocket expense plus the opportunity cost. Learning a new skill is a great idea but that can be done in many less expensive ways, including community colleges. My point in this post was that too many people overlook that most cost-effective ways to improve their skills. Thanks for visiting.

Speak Your Mind

Please leave a comment and tell us your version of the hard truth...

You must be logged in to post a comment.