The United States has historically prided itself on its strong secondary education system. A college degree used to be the ticket to a promising career, a fast track to the American Dream.
But as the cost of tuition rises faster than any other commodity in the U.S. over the past few decades, over two-thirds of college graduates find themselves over their heads in an average of $35,000 worth of student debt. One trillion dollars in total student debt surpasses that of total credit card debt in America, at an alarming $712 billion.
As students struggle to understand and pay back these massive loans, they begin to realize the danger of taking on so much debt early on. Simultaneously, Americans' perception of how valuable college is continues to deteriorate – in light of a myriad of free to low-cost online learning platforms alongside a growing class of billionaire entrepreneurs who dropped out to start their own enterprises.
Ultimately, many prospective college applicants are beginning to look into other alternative education routes, deciding that perhaps college isn’t worth their investment. (To learn more, see: 10 Ways Student Debt Can Destroy Your Life.)
What You Get For Your Debt
In the past, we’ve accepted the high cost of college because a diploma represented an automatic ticket into the high paying job market. However, after the Global Recession of the late 2000s left qualified applicants without work, or at best underemployed, more and more students became frustrated with the system.
A growing administrative bill and the demands of sprawling on-campus mini cities inflated tuition enough to warrant a common perception of a modern “corporatized secondary education industry.” According to College Board, students attending private universities can expect to pay an average cost of tuition and fees of $32,405 a year. Public university tuition for in-state students averages at $9,410, while out of state students get slammed with $23,893 in tuition per year.
Further, it’s not certain you will graduate in four years. According to the documentary “Ivory Tower,” 68% of students fail to graduate in four years, and 44% fail to graduate in six. Since each semester of college costs an additional lump of money, the amount of your total investment is uncertain when you step through the doors freshman year.(For related reading, see: No Job and 50,000 In Student Debt. Now What?)
On the one hand, many jobs continue to require a college education as a prerequisite. On average, salaries for college graduates amount to $1 million more in the course of an individual’s career, according to the College Scorecard database.
But when we look at the commentary from startup CEOs and tech-based companies, we see that most prefer experience, enthusiasm, and tangible skill sets to a college degree. According to a recent study by Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll, just under one-half of Americans no longer believe a four-year college education is a significant indicator of career success. So, what kinds of alternatives are out there besides college?
Technology Champions an Alternative Education Route
The market is quickly becoming saturated with education startups and MOOC providers (Massive Open Online Course) offering alternatives to the traditional secondary education route. Other innovative programs such as Peter Thiel’s fellowship offers $100,000 to students who put off college or drop out in order to start their own businesses. (To learn more, see: Education in the Digital Age: Online Courses to Coding Academies.)
UnCollege, a child of the Thiel Fellowship, allows students to experiment with hands-on learning in an intensive gap year program that integrates online learning and real world projects to learn technical skills. Many of these programs don’t require the massive investment of time and resources, instead offering flexibility, choice and more specialization in the skills taught. Free platforms online such as Duolingo, offer free language learning courses online, accessed via the mobile app or website. (For related reading, see: 5 Free Ways to Learn New Skills Online.)
The Bottom Line
When prospective college students decide to take on large sums of student debt, they often have no idea what they are getting themselves into in terms of the lasting burden it can have on their personal and financial futures. Many students and a growing number of companies have opened their eyes to the flaws of our costly secondary education system, instead looking towards education startups, online learning platforms, and “anti-college” fellowships as alternatives to college.
Perhaps what we need is a hybrid educational model that merges the benefits of hands-on classroom learning, and the accessibility and efficiency of the web-based platforms. Regardless, a drastic revolution and restructuring of the higher education system is needed. In fact, changes are beginning to unravel in front of our eyes.