Should Every Student Pursue a Four Year College Education?

The availability of student loans has changed our financial and employment landscape. 

While attending college used to be something just a few did, “We now send 70 percent of high-school graduates to college, up from 40 percent in 1970,”according to Marty Nemko, a career counselor based in Oakland California (The Chronicle of Higher Education).

While 70 percent of high school graduates attend college, the number of students who graduate with a degree is smaller.  Even when a student does obtain an undergraduate degree, a job is not guaranteed.

“Among the members of the class of 2010, just 56% had held at least one job” (The New York Times) by the spring of 2011.

This naturally begs the question, should all high school graduates attend a college?  Should attending college be something we encourage our children to do?

We live in a world where most people want to see their children go to college.

We have seen the reports that show, time after time, that a person with an undergraduate degree will make hundreds of thousands of dollars more in their lifetime than someone who does not get a college degree.

Even President Obama is encouraging a college education, calling “on every American to receive at least one year of higher education or vocational training” (The Chronicle of Higher Education).

But are we setting our children up, both for failure and for debt they may incur while trying to get that college degree?

Before becoming a freelance writer, I taught at a community college for ten years.

While some of the students were prepared and eager to learn, there were many other students who were ill-prepared and did not want to (or were unable to) learn the material.  Unfortunately, my classes typically contained about 1/3 high achievers, and 2/3rds low achievers.

I saw some students at the end of my ten years there who were in my classes the first few years I taught.  They kept coming back for classes for years and years, but they never completed their degrees.

four year degree

Is a four-year degree always the best route?

Many of them came from several of the school districts in our area that were said to focus on “crowd control” rather than education.  These kids were deficient in basic skills, and they sometimes couldn’t even understand the basics of the textbook.

One time a student asked what the word, “dialogue” meant.  Other low achievers were there because their parents said they had to go to stay on their insurance policies.  These kids came to class every day, but they never did any work.  They were simply there to stay on their parents’ insurance policy.

Unfortunately, my experience is not unique.

Charles Murray, author of the book, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality, explains, “When College Board researchers defined ‘college readiness’ as the SAT score that is associated with a 65 percent chance of getting at least a 2.7 grade point average in college during the freshman year, and then applied those criteria (hardly demanding in an era of soft courses and grade inflation) to the freshman in a sample of 41 major colleges and universities, the threshold ‘college readiness’ score was found to be 1180 on the combined SAT math and verbal tests.  It is a score that only about 10 percent of American 18-year-olds would achieve if they all took the SAT” (The American).

In a world where many of our high school students do not have the ability to excel at a university, should they be encouraged to attend? 

If they will not be able to pass the courses and graduate, should they take on tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt that will impede their financial lives for years while they are working potentially low paying jobs?

Some may argue that students should be encouraged to go to college simply to get a better paying job.

These people understand that students will have student loan debt, but they will presumably get a higher paying job, but that is not always the case.

Simply put, a four year, liberal arts college or university is not for everyone.

As more and more students attend college, there are fewer students that are pursuing blue collar jobs such as automotive repair and electrician, yet these jobs are still needed.

Charles Murray argues that a student who is “at the 70th percentile in linguistic ability and logical mathematical ability” and “is exactly average in interpersonal and intrapersonal ability,” but “is at the 95th percentile in the small-motor skills and spatial abilities that are helpful in being a good electrician,” would make more by going to a trade school to become an electrician than he would going to a liberal arts college to get a B.A. in business with the hope of eventually being a white collar manager.  While he may make an excellent electrician and make a good salary as one, he may only be a mediocre manager and as such will never reach the top salary of manager.  (The American)

A student’s smartest decision is to evaluate whether she even likes going to school and whether she is a strong enough student for the rigors of a four year college or university. 

Not everyone is, and that is okay.  If a high school student is honest with himself and realizes he doesn’t want a college degree but instead wants to pursue a blue collar job, he may find that if he excels in his field, he may earn a salary equal to what he would have earned had he gotten a college degree and worked in a field he was less passionate about (and skilled in), especially when he is not saddled with student loan debt.

Do you think college is for everyone?

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Published or updated October 25, 2012.


  1. Is college for everyone? Of course not. Our society would be much better off if we didn’t encourage all high schoolers to pursue a degree. I think a large part of the reason college is so expensive is because of increased demand. As you indicated in your post, some people are unable or unwilling to do what it takes to successfully obtain a college degree. And that’s okay. We should figure out a way to make these people productive members of society if they don’t attend college.

    • What’s really bad is there’s this stigma that if you don’t have a college degree then well, you just don’t know enough. It’s not correct in any way.

  2. College is not for everyone. Not only is there a high number of high school graduates who are entering college “under-qualified”, there is a large segment who have no clue what they would like to do with their degree.

    I believe there is something missing between graduating high school and entering college. Perhaps its more work study programs in high school, or possibly the idea of internships in high school.

    I believe the solution is more exposure to the working world, white collar or blue collar, would help many high school graduates find what is right for them. Not only would there be less enrolling in college, those who are enrolling would be much more focused on their experience and desired career path.

    • You make a great point. Maybe a one-year work break between high school and college wouldn’t be so bad for a kid to find themselves and feel what the working world is really like. They could either figure out what they want or develop an incentive to really attack a study in college if they chose to.

  3. Squeezer @Personal Finance Success says:

    Of course college isn’t for everyone. Society still requires people without college degrees such as garbage men, ditch diggers, waiters, etc. I think tuition is going up because there’s nothing stopping universities from raising them. If the state governments do not fully fund the colleges, they can simply increase tuition rates. Of course, every time I turn around on a college campus, a new building is under construction. Maybe universities should limit construction projects.

  4. I do think that most people should strive for a college degree, so I’ll take a different position that the initial commenters. This is a view I’ve written about and posted on, so I’ll go ahead and take that view here.

    Now, I do agree that there are plenty of jobs out there that don’t require a college degree. However, what are the prospects for those without a degree. Aren’t they easily replaceable in those jobs? People wouldn’t be clamoring for college degrees if they were meaningless. A college degree gives someone a much better chance in life, and a graduate degree even more so.

    That being said, I think it’s the value proposition of WHERE to go to college that is changing. There are people who go to colleges that cost a lot of money, then put themselves in such a deep financial hole that yes, they end up in a much worse position that someone without a degree. It’s really that decision of picking the right college at the right price that needs much more time invested in it by students and parents who presumably should be able to guide their children with big decisions such as this.

    The bottom line as I see it is that college should be a standard that people should aim for, just as a high school degree was a generation ago. However, great care should be taken to avoid making a bad choice of which college to go to and spend your money.

  5. College is not for everyone! It does not mean the alternative is less. There are many professions that require post secondary training that is not college. Electrician, plumber, carpenter, auto mechanic, hair stylist, technicians, nurse, etc. These professions are just as lucrative and maybe better suited for certain people. Not everyone should be an engineer or doctor!

  6. Is it for everyone? Of course not. Will I expect my hypothetical children to go to college? You betcha.

  7. I wish I could take back my graduate school degree. Seriously. It has helped me none.

  8. Students, parents and guidance counselors really need to start getting practical about the majors they’re sending high school graduates to pursue. Many graduates don’t even ask their parents about loans vs who’s paying and yet even more pursue degrees that have no shot of paying off college debt (or giving them the lifestyle their parents lived). Students need to either ensure their majors are in-demand, or consider forgoing college altogether for a trade or small business they have a high chance of succeeding in (or marry wealthy!)

  9. I’d actually argue for the opposite of some of what Darwin’s Money proposes. I teach at a university, and I see tons of students who are in degree programmes that they think will get them jobs, even though they don’t have the aptitude or the interest for those particular programmes (in many cases they’re there due to parental pressure). They’d be better off studying something they love, then leveraging the soft skills they’ve gained into a job they like/tolerate, than scrape through a degree in something they don’t really want to do. But this is a very hard sell to the parents who in many cases are picking up part of the bill, especially parents who didn’t go to university themselves and see it as a sort of glorified trade school (which it is, but only in some ways!).

    • I agree with this.

      Or mix the two together. I’m getting a degree in something I love thoroughly, which is a soft science. I’m also getting two science minors though, so if my initial plan fails/becomes cost prohibitive, I can always go back to school and get my masters in a scientific/technical field (most decent industrial jobs nowadays require a masters degree anyway)

      To be fair, I have the scholarship and grant money to not have to take out loans though, so I can spend extra time in university.

  10. I have been in the banking industry for 14 years. My father, who was in banking for over 50 years, taught me much about the industry. In the 90’s, when the banking industry took an incredible hit, he lost his job, leaving my family to struggle financially for the rest of his life. That being said, my father taught me skills in the industry that have carried me forward to this day. My family could not afford college for me. I have worked my way up the chain into middle-management and now into a high-caliber lending position. Aside from a small handful of banking related courses, I have never attended a four-year college. I am now in my early 30’s and have done fairly well considering my lack of formal education. I make more than most college grads do and do not have any student loans.

    It is incredible to me however that some employers insist that having an undergraduate degree in journalism, for example, make a candidate far better equipped to do a job in an industry that I have been in for 14 years. When I have hired people, college education means virtually nothing to me. They may have a degree from a terrific school, but they have never counted cash, had to understand different complex loan types, or actually sell a banking relationship to a $50 Million client. Those skills are not learned at a school — they are learned on the field. Grads expect to come into high-level positions, earning $100k because of that degree and many times refuse entry-level positions that are needed to build experience.

    While I am not knocking the education, it is not always necessary. I do get passed over for job opportunities simply because I do not have a degree (any degree will do for them) despite having an enormous amout of experience and success. These employers cannot see the forest for the trees and miss out on valuable employees because they are hung up on a piece of paper that does not guarantee a quality employee.

What Do You Think?