Change by degrees

As they prepare to graduate from high school, students for years have increasingly been led to believe they need to obtain a four-year college degree to be competitive in the workforce and, by extension, live a comfortable life.

“The college degree,” the New York Times declared in 2013, “is becoming the new high school diploma.”

There is certainly some truth to that. A bachelor’s degree can, indeed, be a valuable asset. But it is also a time-consuming and increasingly expensive one to obtain. Students should not be discouraged from seeking one, but they are done a disservice when they are led to believe it is the only path available to them, or the only one they should consider pursuing.

Students are told that with bachelor’s degrees they will earn more — $1 million more is a frequently cited figure — over the course of their careers than one who does not go on to college. Though the statistic has validity, Forbes magazine notes that, in and of itself, “is not proof of cause and effect.”

Moreover, it ignores the reality of the cost that comes with a four-year college degree. The Institute for College Access & Success has an initiative called The Project on Student Debt. It offers eye opening statistics.

In the 2014-15 school year, the total cost of attending the University of Maine was $23,102. Among graduating seniors that spring, 77 percent had debt. The average amount was $32,921. At the University of Maine-Farmington (total cost of attendance: $21,771), 92 percent of graduating students had debt that year. The average amount was $31,529.

So, while students who obtain bachelor’s degrees eventually may earn that extra $1 million, Forbes noted they will have been “forced to disgorge an ever larger fraction of it in pursuit of the degree.”

Mike Rowe, former host of the TV show “Dirty Jobs,” is well aware that the national price tag for outstanding student debt stands at more than $1.3 trillion. He said that is not surprising, however, “in a society that’s convinced a four-year degree is the best path for the most people.”

Rowe does not just bemoan the situation. He offers one potential solution for students in search of a postsecondary path: consider a job in the skilled trades which, as of 2016, had 5.6 million job openings. Many of those jobs pay well. While they require training, they do not require a four-year college degree.

Herewith, examples of skilled trade jobs (and median annual salaries) that the Bureau of Labor Standards, in its annual Occupational Outlook Handbook, reports will see a growing demand for workers in coming years: plumbers ($51,000), bricklayers ($41,000), carpenters ($44,000), insulation installers ($39,000), electricians ($53,000) and utility line workers ($62,000).

“As long as Americans remain addicted to affordable electricity, smooth roads, indoor plumbing and climate control, the opportunities in the skilled trades will never go away,” Rowe noted. “And those properly trained will always have the opportunity to expand their trade into a small business.”

There are great examples of programs that train students for such jobs locally, such as Hancock County Technical Center in Ellsworth and its satellite welding program based at Bucksport High School. Students who want to be welders can, with a wealth of experience already under their belts, go on to earn two-year degrees at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor and from there go on to other good-paying jobs.

Welding instructor Joel Pelletier said the median wage for welders starting out is $35,000 to $45,000. One of his former students traveled to Hawaii for welding work, where he made more than $2,000 a week for five to six months — at the age of 22.

Not every student wants to, or should, become a welder, but the same can be said about earning a liberal arts degree. The point is not to elevate one above the other, but instead to say that both are legitimate, respectable and valuable endeavors for a student who has the interest and motivation to pursue them.

Rather than reflexively ship students off to a four-year college because that is what society sees as a measure of success, these young people should be encouraged to go after what interests them the most — a bachelor’s degree, training for a skilled trade job, other employment or military service (which can help pay for future college), depending on the student.

The world needs college-educated teachers, doctors and scientists; skilled trades workers to build and maintain schools, hospitals, workplaces and homes; fishermen and farmers to feed society; and military and law enforcement personnel who work to keep society safe. It only makes sense to end the focus on funneling everyone toward a four-year degree and recognize that different paths make sense for different people.

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