If I Were 18 Today Would I Still Go To College?

College is one of my favorite topics. It’s true that education correlates strongly with earnings. On average, the further you go in school, the more you’ll make. But that really means nothing to the individual. We all know people with no college who are massively successful, and everyone I think knows a few people with master’s degrees who can’t get their act together. I also don’t necessarily assume that this trend will continue on into the future, although we won’t know for sure until it’s too late.

Which begs an interesting question: if I were graduating high school again today would I go to college? What would I encourage my child to do? The answer, of course, is “it depends.”

The tuition at my alma mater RPI is a cool $48,100 per academic year. Now, it’s still ranked as one of the top 50 colleges in the country, and in most engineering disciplines it’s considered to be one of the top 20 or so. Starting salaries range from about $40,000/year to $70,000/year. Not bad for being 21 years old. You likely come out with a strong professional network and you’re probably going to work for a good company doing interesting work with good upward mobility. So yea, if you want to be an engineer it’s probably worth the $200k it’ll set you back. Ditto for being a lawyer, accountant, doctor, scientist, or any other professional.

It’s a bit muddier though if you fall into the category that most high school seniors do: they’re not sure what they want to do. If that’s the case, it seems almost foolish to spend a few hundred thousand dollars on something that might statistically help you, but also might not, and will most likely put you in debt for decades. There are a few great options I love in this scenario that weren’t popular when I was 18 but I think are gaining traction now.

The first is to attend two years of community college. We have a great community college around here, Hudson Valley, that costs all of $4,100 per year. President Obama even chose to give a speech there in 2009 about the role education and community colleges play in growing our economy. For some, an associates degree will be exactly what they need to go out and get the job they want. For others, a career path will be more clear after two years of college. HVCC works with all of the local schools to feed it’s students into four year programs. I had people in my graduating class at RPI from HVCC that got the same bachelors degree I got, but saved a small fortune doing so.

The other option I love: going to trade school. For some reason, electricians, plumbers, welders, and the like haven’t always been viewed as great jobs. I think they are, and it seems like the general consensus is changing as well. These jobs have great earning potential, are always in demand (and will be for the foreseeable future), and also allow you to become a business owner with your own flexible hours if you so choose. You typically only pay a few thousand dollars in tuition and are working by the time you’re 19. You can get way ahead of your peers financially.

Of course, if you want to start a business or become a web developer or app programmer, you probably don’t need any college at all. It can have it’s benefits though. I like the community college approach + a state school degree as an affordable fall-back option with the added social benefits and networking that college brings. I’ve seen a few people navigate this successfully. Start a business while in college, focus on getting decent grades in the 2.5 – 3.0 range with as little work as possible, and by the time you graduate you’re a few years into a business. If it’s working, you keep going with it. If it’s not, you take a job and continue to try things on the side with entrepreneurship as the ultimate goal. This is how I would do college today if I wanted my career. Total you might spend one fifth of what I spent and still come out with a good degree, with the huge bonus of being much further along on your business.