Washington Evening Journal
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Fairfield Ledger   Mt. Pleasant News
Neighbors Growing Together | Jun 26, 2017

College Education:  Myth, Prestige, Debt & Reality

By Mike Jorgensen

If you are currently over 40 years old, you grew up in an era where you were told that the only way to get ahead in this world was to get a four-year degree in a college or university.  There was a stigma attached to those who didn’t complete a college degree program.   Community college education was looked down upon and considered a lesser option.    
The best paying jobs were the ones that required a four-year degree or more.   What was true in the 1970s and 1980s is now only a myth.   
While the status symbol of obtaining a BA or BS degree still maintains prestige, the reality is that the job market has changed and skilled labor jobs now pay more than most jobs requiring a 4 year degree.   Students are accumulating student loan debts that are putting them behind those who are earning AA degrees and entering the job market earlier.
I have lived through the myth and know that I have said the same to my own daughters.   To be successful you must earn that 4 year degree.  
There is no doubt that there are occupations that require a minimum of a BA or BS degree and if the student is focused and sure that those are the occupations they want, that is the direction they should go.   If we were to survey parents of incoming freshmen in high school, we would find better than 90 percent of our parents that would say that their son or daughter will be going on to complete a four year degree program after high school.  What most parents don’t realize is that only 24 percent of high school graduates in Iowa complete a four year degree program within six years.  Most people believe this figure is much higher.  The national average is only 20 percent.  According to the November 11, 2014 Des Moines Register article “We do a disservice to push college too hard”, about 60 percent of Iowa high school graduates go to college, but 40 percent of those have not graduated within six years.  About 30 percent of first time students who started college in the fall of 2012 were not attending any school one year later, according to a new report from the National Clearinghouse Research Center.  
A statistic I find even more interesting is the fact that approximately 30 percent of those students who are enrolled fulltime in community colleges already have a four year degree.  Why???   The job market needs individuals with skills, not Philosophy majors.  You don’t have to go any further than within Washington County to see where the jobs are.  Manufacturers like Modine, Bazooka Farmstar, and Engineering Building Design (to name just a few) have high skill/high wage jobs that they cannot fill.   In most cases, these jobs have starting salaries above what a starting teacher can earn.   Skilled labor has salary capacity above the capacity of what a teacher could make in their lifetime.
This opens up another myth, the prestige in working in a factory.  Once a year, we take our faculty and visit industrial manufacturers for tours and the opportunity to discuss Human Resource issues.  I consistently hear back from my teachers on how impressed they are with how clean and concerned with safety the worksites are.   They also gain insight in terms of the types of math applications, communication skills, technology and critical thinking skills are used on the job.
Careers in manufacturing are not for all kids, just like obtaining a four year degree is  not for all kids.  What I can tell you is that manufacturing is the no. 1 industry in Iowa (not farming, another myth) and the average salary in the manufacturing industry is $77,000 a year.   That is compared to $60,000 in other occupations in the state of Iowa.  If a student is unsure of what they want to do upon high school graduation, sending them to a 4 year college or university may not be the best choice.  College is the most expensive career exploratory program there is.
Why not suggest they work a year or two first?  Building up a savings account to tackle future college loan debt is not a bad option.   Working at a job at a basic minimum wage will also develop a sense of value in education in a student, which might motivate the need for an education.   The United States is facing a new situation where we are at an all time low in first time home buyers.  Why???  Speculation is that with so much student loan debt, many cannot afford or qualify for a mortgage.   Another viable option for those students who are unsure of their future is the affordable education available at a community college.   Students can choose a career and technical trade area or can simply work towards an Academic track that will give them a transferable AA degree.  Many high school students are able to earn over half of these credits in high school for free right here in Washington.   Last year we saved Washington High School parents over $300,000 in tuition through our concurrent credit program.
These are difficult concepts for parents to grasp who are still living under the myths that were true in 1970’s & 1980’s, but may not be true now.  I believe that high schools across the nation are doing a disservice to our youth in still pushing this myth.   Things have changed and the career counseling and advice being given by teachers, administrators and guidance counselors needs to adapt and change as well.  I do believe that all students need something beyond a high school education, but the message we need to deliver is that those options include military, employment certification programs, AA degrees or four year degrees without the stigma or prestige of one over another.