College isn’t for everyone

The cost of college has gotten out of control

When I tell people that I have never had a student loan and paid for my undergraduate (and the 50% of my graduate) studies out-of-pocket, their jaws drop. It’s true. Kristen and I both earned our bachelors degrees and walked across the stage at graduation debt-free.

It really wasn’t that hard.

And yet, in the last 10 years college has gone from “really expensive” to “ridiculously expensive.

For instance: I was an undergrad student at Moody Bible Institute in 1994-1995. Total fees paid for room & board, $4200. Same room & board 17 years later? $11,000. $4200– I was able to swing that. I worked full-time during the summer and part-time during school and made it work. $11,000? I don’t see how that is possible today. And that is at a private Christian college which doesn’t charge tuition!

Here’s a quick glance at the current costs of some various undergraduate programs: (looking at in-state, on-campus, with meal plans, etc.)

For most families and almost all students that simply isn’t possible.

An undergraduate degree isn’t worth as much anymore

There’s an assumption that somehow all of that cost will pay off and that people who go to college will make more in a lifetime than those who don’t. But when you calculate in the cost of education, student loan interest, etc… earning an undergrad degree might not be your quickest path to financial success. Let’s compare two high school seniors. One chooses to be an elementary teacher and the other a plumber.

Profession Cost of Education Interest paid by age 30 (assuming 50% of costs result in loans) Average salary Working years until age 30 (assuming you complete the programs on time) How much money have you grossed by age 30? (pre-tax, after debt)
Elementary Teacher $92,938 $17,702 $51,467 8 $301,096
Plumber $0 $0 $58,332 11 $641,652


Teacher – Bachelors degree only, assuming no years off and getting a job right out of college.

Plumber – 5 year paid apprenticeship averaging $17 per hour; 6 years as a journeyman plumber averaging $40 per hour.

The same is largely true for a lot of professions. It takes so long for the cost of the education to make it worth it, and at the same time people change jobs more often than you’d imagine.

The median number of years that wage and salary workers had been with their current employer was 4.4 in January 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. This measure, referred to as employee tenure, was 4.1 years in January 2008. The increase in tenure among those at work reflects, in part, relatively large job losses among less-senior workers in the most recent recession. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor

So there is a good chance that a person is going to go into debt learning a profession they might not work at long enough to make it financially profitable to do so.

This flies in the face of the mantra that college is for everyone. That’s a marketing lie. College isn’t automatically in the best interest of every student.

The Atlantic has a series of articles on this subject, far more in depth and poignant than I can articulate.

A sad fact is that a lot of people incur a lot of college debt but don’t complete their degrees nor enter into the profession they were studying in the first place.

College alternatives

I think, as youth workers who care deeply about the lives of our students, we need to help students and their parents find the best solution and not just a mantra that everyone needs to go to college.

The idea that everyone needs to go to college doesn’t make sense on so many levels. Not everyone wants to go to college. Not everyone deserves to go to college because they performed poorly in high school. Not everyone who graduates from high school knows what they want to do. And we don’t live in a society where our economy can support an environment where everyone gets a college degree. (There aren’t enough of those types of jobs, which is why a plumber makes more than a school teacher. Simple supply and demand.)

In fact, I think most students need to take a year off after high school. They need to get free enough from the rigors of high school to ask themselves the question, “Do I even like education? Do I want that? Is it worth my going into debt? Do I even know what I want to do?

They need to get away from their parents. They need to leave their communities of comfort. They need to get a job. They need to just get the heck out of what they know to find out who they are!

In other words they need to be allowed the space to grow up.

Which is, in my opinion, their parents worst nightmare.


16 responses to “College isn’t for everyone”

  1. Shawn M Shoup Avatar

    I absolutely love the idea of a gap year after high school. You’re right, most high school students don’t know what they want to do after they graduate. It’s becoming more popular for students to give up a year after high school for other things such as: missions trips, social justice issues, and/or discipleship programs.

    As a NextGen leader in our district, I’m super pumped about planting a couple of ELN’s (Emerging Leader Network: in our local churches to provide opportunities for students to get out of the home and immerse themselves in hands on ministry and discipleship. Love it!

    Gosh! I think this is the 3rd day in a row I’ve commented here. I guess I’m a fanboy. ;D

  2. Adam Swensen Avatar

    As a senior in high school, I agree with you on this blog! Up until recently I really did NOT want to go to college. I do not like education and just wanted to serve God. All those things still apply, but I want my knowledge of the Bible and teaching the word to grow, which is why I chose to apply to college. If God gave me an opportunity to start a ministry before college, I would happily rely on Him to help me. I just want to serve.

  3. Nate McLaughlin Avatar
    Nate McLaughlin

    Wait? Are you saying I can serve God without a college education? But every one of us that gets our degree ends up working in a career that demands the specific degree we earned!
    I agree with you Adam. That “gap” year can also help minimize the chance of students switching their major and having to retake classes – adding even more expense to their education.
    This changes the way churches need to look at College & Young Adult ministry at their church too. That group runs a wide spectrum between young professionals, full-time college students, young people still trying to figure out the next step, etc. Ministry to that age group needs to be able to connect with people at all those different stages of life.
    Good blog!

  4. Andrea D Avatar
    Andrea D

    LIKE. My dilemma, and the dilemma of my peers, is now that we are here in college and breathing in debt, what can we do about it? Quit?

  5. Katie W Avatar
    Katie W

    Love it! Another real life example I attended a private college and an expensive divnity school. Many of my friends owe 100,000 dollars and are going into ministry (which does not pay 100,000 dollars). I now work 2 part time jobs to try to pay the bills. A good friend of mine went to one year of college and hated it. He started out bagging groceries at a dollar store and is now a district manager (making more money that my husband and I and our degrees). Hard work, loyalty, and knowing what you want goes a long way.

  6. angie Avatar

    agree 100%. I have been saying this for years. My sister actually gets a lot of judgement for not having gone to college right away, and is even now just taking classes slowly at community college. I completely support her and think it was the best decision she made! Glad she had the sense not to go just party, like so many do, let’s be honest! that is one expensive party!

    I also have very minor loans. Paid for undergrad out of pocket. Went to Grad school and paid about half of it. My total loans equal about a year at an average school, but for 7 years of school! But believe me, I am tired of sending in $200 some every month. I need a new car, and I can’t afford it! So I really doubt that a normal college graduate is going to make it with $100,000 in debt. It is scary.

    Oh, and I had my gap year after going straight from high school, to college, to seminary! 🙂 Wish I would have sooner!

  7. Gies Avatar

    Good post Adam! College needs to the right thing at the right time. If you don’t go to college at the right time you will not succeed. You might pass or graduate but not succeed. I went to college on scholarships and paid about $2K for 4 years of college. I paid for VERY LONG and expensive Th.M. (125 credit hours) as I went. I took off 2.5 years between college and seminary as well as a semester during seminary when bills piled up b/c we had our third kid. I also worked a full-time job and had a part-time job selling high-end women’s fashion accessories on ebay. At the end 8 years of school I had about $4000 worth of debt, which was manageable. I also have a job I love, which I can undoubtedly say was worth the time, money, effort, and debt. You do what it takes if you want it.

    College should not be the time you find yourself. That is the equivalent of living in a hotel, at $150/night, just to figure out who you are. It’s pointless! In education, your life goal(s) should determine whether or not you go to college.

    The problem is that many parents have their minds made up on college and will gladly send their kids into debt to “live the dream.” Start telling kids to not go to college and see how most parents react… it’s rough.

  8. adam mclane Avatar

    @gies- I think that’s why we have to start arming ourselves with actual facts. Like above, show a side-by-side comparison about where their kid will be in 11-12 years financially… you don’t have to be an accountant to see how that doesn’t make sense.

    My last line in this post really sums a lot of my feelings on this topic up.

    “In other words they need to be allowed the space to grow up.
    Which is, in my opinion, their parents worst nightmare.”

  9. Jon Avatar

    I agree. Looking back, I probably shouldn’t have gone to college, at least at first. I didn’t have the grades, responsibility, or academic skills to make it a wise choice. I also didn’t have a solid drive or desire to complete the program that I felt I was forced into. I did eventually end up taking two years off and began working and living on my own and, I think, growing up a bit. After that hiatus I was and am significantly more prepared for college. I also have discovered what I want to do and now I am driven to finish my degree.
    I think another thing is that kids have way too many options and don’t have the ability to sort though them or explore them as things are currently. It seems that many people are funneled into college and told they need to pick a career from a list of majors, which is in my opinion is putting the cart before the horse…

    What about taking this idea a step further? Should we have high school as we know it? Is it truly beneficial? Should it be required? Are there better options?

  10. adam mclane Avatar

    @jon- I think a better way is what happens in the european system where college bound students are segmented out at 13-14 years old. That keeps compulsory education at the core but segments people into career paths. High school’s one-size-fits-all approach is a joke.

  11. Nick Arnold Avatar

    I think the key is to offer plenty of alternatives and make sure we present those alternatives as options that are just as viable as college.

  12. adam mclane Avatar

    @nick- my fear is that part of the narrative of the American Dream is that people go to college. Anything that isn’t college is seen as somehow failing.

    Maybe we should first work on completely re-writing the American Dream?

  13. adam mclane Avatar

    This concept is gaining steam, check out this article from TIME, link through to the poll from Pew. Fascinating… the American Dream is redefining under our feet, friends.

  14. Cheryl Smith Avatar

    Adam, this is a must read for parents of teens & tweens. We have four kids and are seriously paying attention to this issue. Three of our kids excel academically. Two of those would do well in college and maybe, based on their areas of expertise, it might make sense (teaching, finance, etc.).

    BUT, the other two – I’m not so sure. One is VERY bright in academics, but at least currently, not so much in school structure… The last one, drama and/or mechanical. Time will surely tell!

  15. Molly Avatar

    LOVE THIS. As the mom of a 16 year old who really doesn’t like school this has been a hot topic around our house this year. Next year he will be a Junior and this topic will be even more important.

    I don’t want him to feel like lesser because he chooses something that is better for him.

    Personally, I shouldn’t have gone to college, that was ONE EXPENSIVE Party my parents financed.

  16. Robert Mills Avatar
    Robert Mills

    What you say makes a lot of sense. I was a C student that could have gotten better grades had I cared enough to try. Even though I was only average everyone told me that I should go to college. I wish I didn’t. I raked up $38,000 in debt & I didn’t finish even finish a degree. I didn’t have a car to get to work. Years of working for several different companies I was only making $22,000 a year. I couldn’t afford to go back to college & finish my degree, & couldn’t find a job paying nearly what I needed to not live in poverty. I didn’t even own a car until I was 26. I ended up working for a guy I knew who was a general contractor after i got laid off. He paid me a little more than I was making at my previous job. I learned a little of everything, plumbing, concrete work, framing, electrical, roofing. I ended up changing careers & working for him full time for a few years. I made nearly twice what I was at my previous job a year later. I decided that I liked the electrical work the best. So I became an electricians apprentice at 32. 3 years later i making nearly $50,000 as a licensed electrician. I’m working as much overtime as I want because my boss can’t find enough skilled labor for all his jobs. I wish I had not gone to college & wasted my youth in a crummy job, resulting in poverty & a mountain of debt. I’d be 23 had I started doing this right out of high school. Instead I’m 35 & finally happy with my life.

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