The number and percentage of high school students who go on to four-year college have been rising steadily for years: 26% of 18-24 year-olds were in four-year colleges in the year 2000. The corresponding figure in 2016 was 31%. But as the costs of college increase and many college graduates see only middling job prospects, more and more families are asking the question: is college the best choice for everyone?

College Is Still a Great Choice For Many Students

Nationwide, historical data still shows that the career prospects of college-educated people are better than those of students without a degree. On average, college graduates earn about $1 million more than those without a degree over their lifetime. But the premium is shrinking, driven by many factors, including the fact that technology now supplants human beings in many jobs, and because graduates with bachelors degrees are being forced into lower-wage, lower-skilled jobs.

Of course, salaries aren’t the only reason to get a college degree. For many students, it’s driven by a real desire to delve deeper into the world of knowledge and critical thinking. If you want to study quantum physics, number theory, literature, or sociology, getting a degree is often the best way to learn the material, test yourself, find mentorship, and build community. So if you’re a high school student, or the parent of one, preparing for college is still a great choice.

But Not the Best Choice For All

But for many students, the academic rigor of college may not be the best option. New research is challenging the traditional view that college is necessary to build a financially stable life. This is partly because the costs of college are so high that students often graduate with crushing levels of debt. And partly because students who don’t go on to a four-year college after high school have more choices than ever before.

A new report by Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce shows there are over 30 million good-paying jobs for people without a bachelors degree. “Good-paying jobs,” by this definition, are jobs paying at least $35,000 annually, with median annual earnings of $55,000. These jobs tend not to be concentrated in blue-collar manufacturing. More and more people find jobs in skilled services industries like health care and financial services. And while these jobs don’t require a four-year degree, an increasing number of them do require some education (like an associate’s degree or two-year certificate) after high school.

According to the report, some of the areas with the greatest growth in good jobs that don’t require a four-year degree are:

  • Leisure and hospitality and personal services
  • Healthcare services
  • Financial consulting/business services
  • Education services
  • Government services

At LifeLaunchr, we sometimes work with students for whom we recommend paths other than college. For some students, a gap-year program is a great option. For some, joining the military might be the best choice.

Middle Path Jobs Are a Great Alternative For Some

The Georgetown Center’s research also shows that many of these jobs are “middle-path” jobs, which require some education and training beyond high school. America’s community colleges and some private trade schools are a tremendous resource for students seeking this middle path.

College is still the best path for many, perhaps even most, students. For one thing, the average earnings of college students are higher. Also, college is a path to many career opportunities that require a degree. Careers such as management, law, engineering, science, medicine, public service, and research all require college educations. But many students don’t find those paths interesting. Their skills are better suited to other types of work. And it turns out there are great opportunities to build a stable, successful life without a college degree. So, is college the best choice for everyone? No, it isn’t.

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