“Ask Brianna” is a column for 20-somethings or anyone else starting out. I’m here to help you manage your money, find a job and pay off student loans — all the real-world stuff no one taught us how to do in college. Send your questions about postgrad life to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Americans want to believe that we all have the chance to explore our individual brands of limitless potential. We tell young people, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” We say they should take the time to discover who they really are and pick a career that will match.
As you might have heard, college isn’t cheap. Increasingly, only those whose families have the resources or the willingness to take on student loan debt can afford to enroll in a four-year college, explore existential questions, and hope they’ll end up with a fulfilling, well-paying career.
“So everybody’s kind of on their own, and it means the advantaged kids get to be Hamlet and the disadvantaged kids don’t,” says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
If you’re considering what to do after high school, or counseling someone who is, here’s how to navigate the options for achieving your very own American dream.
Plan to pursue postsecondary education — of some kind
Despite the cost, college has become more and more compulsory. Automation has increased the demand for high-skilled workers, and jobs in the fastest-growing industries — like health care, education and finance — often require education beyond high school.
The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce defines good jobs as those that pay at least $35,000 a year for workers under age 45 and $45,000 for workers over 45. In 1991, about 40% of those jobs required a bachelor’s degree; by 2015, 55% did.
While that’s a big jump, it still means 45% of good jobs are attainable without a four-year degree. But a high school degree alone likely won’t lead to earnings that are high enough to sustain you. That means you should plan to continue on in school. And don’t wait too long, especially if your family isn’t in the top 20% to 25% of earners.
In that case, “Every year you don’t go to college increases the chance you’ll never go by almost 25%,” Carnevale says.
Choose a career path first
Unsurprisingly, it will be easier to choose a postsecondary path if you have a career in mind. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook is a good place to start. Search potential careers by pay, level of education needed, growth rate and more.
The average bachelor’s degree recipient earns 168% of a high school diploma holder’s salary, according to an analysis by the Hamilton Project, a policy initiative affiliated with the Brookings Institution. But a bachelor’s isn’t the only path to good pay.
Aircraft mechanics, for instance, enjoy median earnings of about $60,000 a year with a mechanic’s certificate and 18 months of experience, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By contrast, the bureau says that’s also how much teachers, social workers and nutritionists make with a four-year degree.
A career, of course, isn’t just about making money. The most fulfilling jobs offer autonomy, variety, and opportunities for on-the-job training and advancement, says James Rosenbaum, professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University.
Consider taking small steps to a degree
Carnevale and Rosenbaum advocate for incremental education, especially for students who don’t have the money to pay for a four-year education outright or who have concerns about graduating on time. Consider alternative college paths: Start with a one- or two-year certificate at a trade school or community college, get a job at a company that offers tuition assistance, and pursue an associate or bachelor’s degree while you work.
“We definitely see that pathway of earning a certificate and then continuing on to earn a degree after that has grown,” says Doug Shapiro, executive research director at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Make sure both the school and the program of study you choose are reputable. Check that they’re accredited and licensed, if applicable, using the U.S. Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.
And if this all feels complicated, know that it’s not just you.
“It used to be pretty easy: If you didn’t want to go to college, you didn’t; you could do just fine if you didn’t,” Carnevale says. “Now you’ve got to go on to some kind of postsecondary ed, and the choices you make matter a lot.”
This column was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press.