Why Skipping College Is Sometimes the Better Career Choice

Personal Finance
Why Skipping College Is Sometimes the Better Career Choice

By Kathryn Hauer, CFP

Learn more about Kathryn at NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor

In recent years, it has become conventional wisdom to assume that getting a college education is the only route to success. If a young person is able to get into a college, it’s a given that he or she should go, and that higher-paying jobs and a better life will follow.

But is it true? Let’s look at the question from a few different angles.

The base-salary factor

Many jobs that require a college degree don’t pay well. For instance, teachers, social workers, human-resource analysts and laboratory workers have important jobs, but these jobs generally don’t command high salaries.

Here are some representative annual salaries for jobs in my state of North Carolina that require a college degree, based on salaries of my family members and teacher-salary data:

  • Business analyst: $45,000 ($21.63 per hour)
  • Human resources manager: $41,000 ($19.71)
  • Communications consultant: $32,000 ($15.38)
  • Teacher: $30,000 ($14.43)

Lower salaries are attributable to many factors, including high competition within an industry and recession woes. Regardless of the reason, if you get a degree that qualifies you for one of those jobs, you will not be able to earn much more than the average, no matter how talented you are. An elementary school teacher today will probably never make $170,000 per year in his or her profession.

In contrast, many blue-collar workers earn $25 to $35 per hour, plus overtime at time-and-half rates. Jobs in the trades (carpenters, welders, equipment operators), in transportation (truck drivers, subway operators), in medical technician work, or in telecommunications (installers and repair people) pay well, as this sampling of average annual salaries shows:

  • Powerhouse electric repair person: $66,000 ($31.73 per hour)
  • Dental hygienist: $63,000 ($30.28)
  • Aircraft mechanic: $55,000 ($26.44)
  • Electrician: $52,900 ($25.44)

The overtime factor

In addition to the relatively low wages salaried jobs provide, any overtime is generally unpaid, which drives effective wages even lower. For example, let’s say you work as a communications consultant at a salary of $32,000 per year, or $15.38 per hour for a 40-hour workweek. If you work 50 hours in a week, you actually made $12.30 per hour that week, driving your pay down by $3.08 per hour.

Some may say, “I’m never going to work without being paid!” But managers at many professional jobs expect their employees to put in unpaid overtime. You could refuse, but it’s likely you’d be replaced by another eager, unemployed college grad who is happy to earn that $12 an hour. In contrast, an ironworker making $29.73 per hour who works 50 hours per week with 40 hours at straight time and 10 hours at time-and-a-half drives his or her effective wage up to $32.70 per hour that week.

The debt factor

According to The Wall Street Journal, the average 2015 college undergraduate student graduates with about $35,000 in debt. Grad students incur even more debt, and salaries, especially in education, aren’t high enough to make that master’s degree (which is a great academic boost) a worthwhile return on investment. In the worst-case scenario, if it turns out that college isn’t for you or if problems prevent you from graduating, you can end up with debt and no degree to show for it.

Training for blue-collar jobs also takes time and money, but the duration and expense are far less than what’s required by four years of college.

The pay-ceiling factor

It’s true that the jobs nabbed by the most elite and specifically trained college grads — for example, lawyers, doctors and computer scientists — can pay very high salaries, both as your career starts and as it progresses. But salaries for these relatively elusive jobs dwarf those for reporters, museum curators, most of those employed in religious good works, rehab counselors, radio announcers, recreational workers, legislators in local government, marriage counselors, historians and biological technicians.

These professional jobs have traditionally had relatively low maximum-pay ceilings. It’s not that they aren’t important, but the fact is that they just don’t pay very much — and aren’t likely to earn you large pay increases relative to inflation over time.

So what should a young person do? If you love learning or yearn for a career that requires a college degree, then go for it! But just know that college isn’t necessarily the only path to an emotionally and financially fulfilling life.


Image via iStock.