A college degree isn’t the only path to a successful career

At an individual level, sometimes a trade school makes the most sense for your or your children’s financial future.

Tom Werner | Digitalvision | Getty Images

While my parents never had the opportunity to attend college, they were indeed very successful.

Their success afforded me the opportunity to pursue higher education, but ironically, I doubt I’ll ever be nearly as successful as them.

My mom is one of the founders of the Wealth Enhancement Group — to which I would mention her as “my inspiration to be in the financial services industry.”

As for my dad, he wrote computer programs that sorted data and he turned it into a direct mail marketing business.

But what I think makes them so special is on top of all that, they also did real estate development. My dad got his general contractor license so he could oversee the projects. Then they went on to design their own homes. They were never scared of losing it all because they never had it all.

I doubt I’m not the only one who feels this way about higher education. As a financial advisor, I see this narrative play out every day in my office with clients.

How did we get here?

Many people still believe attending a four-year college is the only way to financial stability and success, but that isn’t always the case.

Over the past few decades, the middle class has expanded, along with the desire for white-collar jobs. Therefore, college became the default path, contributing to the cost of higher education increasing 169% from 1980 to 2020, according to a Georgetown study.

The pool of candidates with a college degree became so saturated that it enables employers to keep entry-level wages low. To make matters worse, roughly 34% of college graduates are underemployed.

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A return on investment from a college education has been in steady decline for a while. And that gap between cost and payoff has become so large that it recently required government intervention.

And while President Joe Biden’s student debt forgiveness plan has undoubtedly provided some relief for many Americans, it’s just a Band-Aid on a major laceration.

As tuition continues to rise and wages don’t seem to match, many Americans need to ask the question: “Is college even worth it?”

Weigh all your options

As a parent, I know that we’re often so fearful of our children missing out on opportunities that we sometimes steer them away from paths that deserve a longer look. As an advisor, I find it frightening that we’ve normalized advice to take on mountains of debt without even weighing alternatives.

And with the way things are heading, the value of a college education — in both perception and reality — will be drastically different in 10 or 20 years, when students (and their parents, many of whom are currently feeling anxious about how to save for college) need to make a decision about what to do after high school.

Why college is so expensive in America

Consider all the options. Hand in hand with the premium placed on a college education is a terrible stigma about trade schools and blue-collar jobs. But the pandemic showed us that we need those jobs to function as a society. And at an individual level, sometimes a trade school makes the most sense for your (or your children’s) financial future.

For others, direct entry into the workforce makes the most sense.

We continue to see more job growth in construction, health care, computer science and tech. In those sectors, there’s an abundance of opportunity outside of traditional schooling. Coding boot camps, the growth of opportunities for entrepreneurship and the gig economy have all transformed how we should be thinking about the future. It’s a future that doesn’t necessarily lead through a four-year college.

Be prepared no matter what

What are the implications for financial planning?

Emotionally and psychologically, reassessing college plans might help you reorient your current priorities.

Maybe you’re sacrificing an emergency fund or saving for retirement because of the pressure of rising tuition. For you, knowing that there are good — and for many individuals, better — options outside of college might help you feel at ease putting money where it should be going.

And 529 college savings plans — the most popular vehicle for college savings — are much more flexible than you might realize. Assets in a 529 plan can be used at two-year associate degree programs, trade schools and vocational schools.

The most common fear stopping people from starting a 529 early is the prospect of paying a 10% penalty and taxes on the earnings should the child not use the funds for qualified education expenses, but don’t let the fear of the penalty stop you from good planning. Those penalties are offset by tax-deferred gains and recapturing state income tax deductions.

I’m about investing in people, not blindly investing in a path that everyone says is the only way to success. There are many doorways to a financially stable, prosperous life. I hope you’ll take the time to consider all of them.

— Nicole Webb, Senior vice president/financial advisor at Wealth Enhancement Group

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