Are you one of the millions of emerging high school graduates at a crossroads? (Or, maybe you’re the parent of one.) Two paths lie ahead:
1. Go to college and graduate into debt bondage.
2. Skip college and run a big risk of under-earning for the rest of your life.
It’s a tough choice and a HUGE financial commitment, especially when you realize the national student loan debt just broke $1.64 trillion. College debt can loom for decades. Many graduates shackled to monthly payments struggle to invest in the future without sinking deeper into debt.
If you’re creative, you face the added dilemma of choosing whether to pursue what you love or choosing a job-ready major you’re less passionate about.
I get it – I’m a writer. It’s troubling to imagine a world where culture-creators like English majors are shoehorned into “more worthwhile” fields of study. That’s one reason why I dropped out of college at 19. With my last $75, I started a successful remote writing agency, Express Writers, which I’ve been running for the past nine years.
It’s no secret that jobs in 2020 are shifting rapidly. Thankfully, some are becoming way more accommodating to people without degrees. The question still stands: should you invest in higher education? What are promising, sustainable alternatives?
Let’s take a deep dive into the facts.
5 (Real) Facts About The State of College Debt in 2020
Is college worth the cost? Many outdated advisers throw their caps in the air and shout: yes!
It’s when the caps come crashing down that the problems begin. A 2020 study from the St. Louis Fed reveals recent graduates are struggling to escape debt and build net worth. Here are five reasons why:
1. The College Wealth Premium is Declining
Degree-holders have the potential to earn an estimated $468 more per week than high school grads, and up to $2.8 million more over their lifetimes. This high-income potential used to make going to college the obvious choice. However, an increase in income doesn’t always guarantee prosperity.
The soaring value of assets (investments like cottages, silver necklaces, and well-maintained cars) have helped older generations build wealth. Unfortunately, those same high prices have all but barred the younger generations from investing.
2. Consumer Debt Is At An All-Time High
It takes time to become financially savvy. That’s why young people are especially vulnerable to consumer debt.
With the rise of easy-to-open credit lines the 1980s, young people took on credit cards, car loans, and mortgages that just kept getting bigger. In the US, housing is now the largest loan category. A close second? Student loans.
With an average of $29,000 in student loan debt per student, many graduates are shelling out the equivalent of a mortgage payment every month. For those with more than $100,000 in debt, these payments can last up to 20 years.
3. Tuition Fees Are Skyrocketing
Only 1 in 4 students think college is reasonably affordable, and it’s easy to see why. Over the past decade, the cost of tuition has risen by 25%, to roughly $21,370 for a public university. For private schools, it’s more than double.
4. Roughly Half of the Student Body Doesn’t Graduate
Roughly 19.9 million students enrolled in college 2019, but enrollment doesn’t equal a degree. In fact, colleges expect to award only 2.9 million bachelor’s and associate’s degrees this year – that’s less than 15% of the freshman student body!
5. Not All Majors Are Equal
Your major seriously affects the value of your degree. A 2020 study found the median earnings for high-earning majors and low-earning majors differed by up to $40,000 per year.
The lowest-earning majors: fine arts, liberal arts, and education.
Should Everyone Skip College?
With all the data laid out, it’s clear: after graduating, you’re on your own. A degree is not a golden ticket to a good job.
Your decision is unique to your goals. Be honest about your budget, consider your dream job, and judge whether college is the right path to get you there.
Who Needs College? (Why College Might Be the Right Choice for You)
Do these three aspirations describe you? If so, the benefits of college might outweigh the cost.
1. You want to be a doctor, lawyer, pilot, or teacher. For high-skill jobs that require a professional license, college is a must. If you want to be a nurse, land surveyor, or engineer, you’ll most likely need a degree as well.
2. You want the networking benefit of the on-campus experience (and the adventure). College is a place where inexperienced students can regularly connect with experts in the field. You can build relationships with mentors, seed connections that may later lead to job opportunities, and have a blast in the process.
If this sounds like something you’re looking for (and you can afford to foot the tuition bill), you should consider going to college.
3. Your dream job involves in-depth scientific research. Are you an aspiring Indiana Jones, Einstein, or Marie Curie? Your dream job may require extensive research facilities and in-depth lab training. For this reason, an academic-focused life in college may be right for you.
The Opportunity Costs of Going to College
Here are four reasons to consider skipping college:
1. College isn’t the end-all, be-all for creative people. Are you an aspiring content-creator, writer, or artist? While college can be a great place to network and workshop, after graduation it’s another story. Creative majors see the highest rates of post-grad unemployment and the lowest median lifetime earnings.
2. Jobs are evolving faster than universities. In this digital era, out-of-date textbooks aren’t just annoying – they’re a waste of your money and time.
Let’s say you study marketing in a four-year program, only to graduate and realize you’re light years behind the marketing world and you don’t have the skills you need to land a job.
On top of that letdown, you’re now deeply in debt and find yourself under-earning while re-learning marketing from zero.
3. College doesn’t fully prepare you for success. Did you know the top 50% of high school graduates earn the same amount as the bottom 50% of college grads? The big takeaway: a degree doesn’t necessarily set you up for financial success.
Today’s job market refreshes as quickly as your social media feed. Successful workers need to be on their toes, all the time. That means constantly deepening your industry knowledge, taking courses, and investing in consistent personal development. Colleges give this to you for four years. After that? It’s up to you.
4. College internships may be a misuse of your time. Don’t get me wrong – awesome internships provide on-the-ground industry experience and value their interns by paying them a fair wage.
Other internships are not so great.
You know the stereotype: students working full-time for free, doing demeaning coffee-fetch work unrelated to their major, and (worst of all) have to pay for the honor of being there. After all, the point of an internship – besides the job experience – is often earning college credit.
Why not seek entry-level work from the get-go, and gain on-the-job training without relying on college as a middle man?
6 Top Companies That Prioritize Skills Over Degrees
The Trend Doesn’t Stop There
While US-based companies are at the forefront of this job market-wide shift, other countries are following suit. The UK-based company EY is now open to candidates with a bachelor’s or equivalent experience.
With the explosion of remote-only companies, it’s possible to hire the best talent from anywhere in the world. Here’s the secret benefit: it’s impractical for companies to investigate every degree from a global pool of candidates. This means the value of your skills is at an all-time premium.
For example: in my remote agency, we don’t over-focus on resumes, let alone degrees. Instead, my writers prove their skills with a writing sample. That’s why I can count on my team of 90 experts to create killer content, even though we’ve never met face-to-face.
This hiring style will become more common as companies search for top remote talent worth every penny. There’s only one question: how do you set yourself apart?
How to Land a High-Earning Career Without a Degree
By now, you know you don’t need a degree to jump in to the world of content marketing. Maybe you’re skipping college, or maybe you’re taking a gap year.
Either way, you’re not wasting years on-campus and racking up a mountain of debt. Here’s what you shouldn’t do: twiddle your thumbs, waiting for your dream job to call you.
I’ll break it to you bluntly: it won’t.
Dream jobs are always earned, whether it’s through a degree, experience, or solid networking. Any job that just falls into your lap with no input from you is unlikely to grow your career.
Thankfully, there are a TON of ways to launch yourself forward and boost your odds of earning an amazing, lucrative job (sans degree). The awesomely frugal bonus? Most of them are free.
Focus On What You Love
Are you passionate about telling stories, making something beautiful, or growing vibrant communities? Here are 5 skills you can cultivate to translate your passion into a money-making, high-reward career:
1. Freelance Writing – Median Salary: $52,800
2. Content Marketing – Median Salary: $56,780
3. Content Strategy –Median Salary: $70,000
4. Web Development – Median Salary: $68,500
5. SEO & Digital Marketing – Median Salary: $50,000
Take Advantage of E-Learning
With so much information available for free online, we’re all more informed (and hungrier for knowledge) than ever before. Looking for educational podcasts? Try these three:
Here are five online courses you can use to advance your knowledge (and put on your resume):
Build Your Soft Skills
According to recent grads, learning and deepening soft skills was the most important aspect of their college experience. Skills like creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication.
To level-up your soft skills, check out these awesome resources:
Is A Degree Worth the Debt?
In 2020, the answer isn’t a cut and dry “yes.” Tuition costs are swelling. Student loans and consumer debts loom heavily over grads for decades. A degree no longer equals long-term wealth, or even a good job.
There’s a lot to consider before taking the plunge and enrolling in a four-year course. Here’s my advice: consider your passions and identify the career you want. What path will get you where you want to go?
Examine the benefits and drawbacks of college, and investigate options that get you in the workforce faster and more affordably. It’s a deeply personal choice. In the end, it’s up to you to determine if college is worth it, or if your journey takes you on a different path.