It doesn't take a math major to see that something isn't adding
up when it comes to conventional four-year bachelor's degrees.
Public-college costs have skyrocketed over the past five years,
bringing the total average annual price of an in-state education to
$17,860, according to the College Board. Private-college costs are
even more alarming, approaching $40,000 a year. Students who have
borrowed to pay those prices are entering into the workforce with
an average of $26,600 in student debt, and many are carrying much
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More bad news: The unemployment rate for bachelor's degree
recipients between the ages of 20 and 24 is 5.9%, lower than the
national unemployment rate but a discouraging statistic for those
who assumed a degree would result in an immediate paycheck. With
the costs high and the return uncertain, not a few parents and
policymakers are asking whether a four-year college degree is worth
the time and the cost.
But the prospects for someone entering the labor market sans a
bachelor's degree are far worse. The unemployment rate for recent
high school grads is a whopping 27%, and career options are
disappearing fast. Nearly four of every five jobs destroyed in the
recession were held by workers with a high school diploma or no
diploma at all. The lifetime earnings for a bachelor's recipient
are about $1 million more than for a high school graduate.
By 2020, the percentage of jobs that don't demand a post-high
school credential will shrink to 36%, according to the Georgetown
University Center on Education and the Workforce. "Employers are
requiring more education at the entry level," says Andrew Hanson,
an analyst for the center. "They won't accept you if you don't have
some sort of postsecondary credential or award."
So where does the high school graduate with no desire to attend
Flagship U and even less desire to flip burgers end up? That's what
Jo Holland wondered when she graduated from high school without
"the urge to go to college like all my peers," she says. Holland
worked at a hostel in Chile before enrolling in college-level
Spanish courses in England. She was unmotivated by her coursework
and returned home to the Washington, D.C., area without a degree.
Then she found an event-management course at a local for-profit
college. The coursework appealed to her artistic sensibilities and,
at $275 per class, it was reasonably priced. Holland completed her
classes in less than five months and landed a gig at a local
If, like Holland, you are looking for an alternative to the
traditional four-year degree at a residential college, you can find
certificate or degree programs that will get you into the working
world faster, cheaper or both.
1. Pick Up a Certificate
Almost 30 million jobs in the U.S. pay $35,000 or more and don't
require a bachelor's degree, according to the Georgetown center.
But that doesn't mean your education can stop after high school.
Most middle-wage jobs -- $35,000 to $75,000 a year -- in fields
with increasing demand, such as health care, information technology
and public services, require some form of post-high school
Professional certification is an affordable way to increase your
employment potential or enhance your value to employers once you
are on the job. And the earnings boost a certificate provides isn't
anything to scoff at. In fact, more than one-fourth of those
holding postsecondary licenses or certificates earn more than the
average bachelor's degree recipient, according to Harvard
University's 2011 "Pathways to Prosperity" report. Says Hanson,
"It's increasingly becoming a matter of which occupations or
industries you go into as opposed to, say, level of education."
You can find certification programs through community colleges,
for-profit schools or corporate programs; they'll vary in price,
length of study and academic prerequisites. For instance, becoming
a certified nursing assistant typically requires coursework at a
community college plus clinical hours at a health facility and a
passing score on a certifying exam. To earn an
information-technology certificate from the Microsoft IT Academy
(one of a number of industry-related certifying programs), for
example, you'd complete Microsoft-approved classes at an
educational institution, such as a community college, then take
exams that test your proficiency with Microsoft products. (See
information on the Microsoft program.)
Jay Soelberg, a 20-year veteran of the IT industry, is earning a
certificate to buff his career credentials after recently losing
his job. He is working his way independently through a Cisco
Networking certification. Even though he's found another position,
losing his job persuaded Soelberg to add a specialty to his résumé.
He passed his first test in October and is working toward his
second. Because he chose to study independently, instead of through
classes, his costs are minimal. So far, he has spent only about
$800 on books, videos and testing fees. He says of the certificate,
"It shows an employer that I can hit the ground running instead of
needing a mentor."
2. Get an Associate's Degree
Holders of associate's degrees are in increasing demand in
today's workforce. In fact, employers are planning to hire
one-third more associate's degree earners this year than last,
according to Michigan State University's 2012-2013 "Recruiting
Trends." That will far exceed the increase in demand for bachelor's
These degrees, typically awarded after a two-year program,
usually result in a career-oriented skill. Associate's degree
recipients earn about 24% more than high school graduates during
their working life, reports the College Board. On average, men with
an associate's degree earn $49,000, and women earn $35,000. Popular
fields include nursing, business and information technology. Police
officers and business-degree holders earn some of the highest
3. Take Two and Transfer
A four-year degree may eventually deliver higher earnings, but
it also requires a pricey outlay for tuition, room and board if you
attend a four-year residential college.
You could get your prerequisites taken care of for less at the
local community college. Tuition and fees are two-thirds lower, on
average, at a community college than at a four-year institution,
according to the American Association of Community Colleges.
Spending two years at a community college could save you thousands
in tuition and fees over a four-year public education; you'll save
thousands more on room and board by living at home. Community
colleges also offer night and weekend classes, so they are more
accommodating to students who have jobs and families.
Although only about one in five community-college students
transfer to a four-year college, according to the National Student
Clearinghouse Research Center, those who do have a decent track
record of finishing. About 60% of community-college transfers
graduate within four years of making the move--in line with the
six-year grad rate of students who start at a four-year public
college, and twice as high as the four-year grad rate at public
4. Earn a BA Degree in Three
Although three-year degree programs have existed for decades
(Bates College, a private institution in Maine, has offered one
since the 1960s), increases in both public- and private-school
costs have contributed to a recent surge in their popularity.
Nearly 20 private schools have added three-year degrees since the
economic downturn in 2008, according to the National Association of
Independent Colleges and Universities.
With tuition and fees increasing about 3% to 5% a year for the
past few years, enrolling in a three-year degree program becomes
doubly beneficial: Graduating in three years lets you avoid a
fourth year of college costs, and you can start earning a year
sooner. The Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, which looked into
these degrees for the University of Wisconsin, estimates that
resident students could save about $25,000 on the total cost of
college by finishing a year early.
Wisconsin isn't the only state exploring accelerated degree
programs. Ohio's 2012-13 budget requires public institutions to
produce plans for three-year bachelor's degrees, with a goal of
adding these accelerated degree options to 60% of programs by
Private school programs include that of American University,
where 2011-12 tuition and fees were $38,982 per year. The
Washington, D.C., university launched its three-year "Global
Scholars" program in 2011. Students complete 45 college credits
each year including study abroad, and graduate one year early with
a BA in international studies.
If you're already nervous about hacking it in a traditional
college setting, the three-year track isn't for you. "A three-year
degree appeals to very highly motivated students," says Thomas
Harnisch, assistant director of state relations and policy analysis
for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
You may need to squeeze in extra classes, take summer courses, or
acquire college credit in high school through advanced-placement
Harnisch recommends going for an accelerated degree at an
institution that charges by status -- full-time versus part-time --
instead of by credit hour. With a school that charges per credit
hour, you won't save much, if anything, by overloading courses.
After working in event décor, Holland found that she didn't want
to cut short her education after all. She has returned to school
part-time to work toward an associate's degree in business
administration with the option of rolling it into a bachelor's
degree later on. Although the road she's taken to higher education
hasn't been the traditional one, she's still developing the skills
to make it in today's labor market.