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Robbery in the First Degree

Written by Jeffrey Steele - 12 Comments

Robbery in the First Degree

It was once considered gospel that, for most families, college educations were the second largest expenses they would ever assume, right after buying a home.

But the way college costs are rising (and home values are decreasing), I’m not sure college educations haven’t graduated into first place. Of course, a funny thing happened on the way to good ol’-fashioned college degrees growing ever more costly.

They appeared to lose a lot of their career-guaranteeing value, based on all the people with college degrees working at jobs that don’t require degrees. You’ve got sizable percentages of college grads, for instance, working as bellmen and porters, as well as limo and taxi drivers, writes Richard Vedder, author of Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much. And those are the ones who have found employment. Worse yet, many are burdened with tens of thousands of dollars in college debts.

The problem, it would appear, is that parents are in love with the idea of a college degree, and will go to the poor house – or guarantee their kid winds up in one – to ensure that junior strides away from college with a sheepskin. Bearing that diploma from dear old State, he should be good to go, into a career filled with similarly-educated grads all whittling away at debts that could take them decades to pay off.

College is great for many folks, and I was surely one of them. I would not have bypassed the educations I received from numerous curvy coeds – of both the blonde and brunette persuasions – for anything. But if I was considering the idea of taking on $50,000 in debt today in return for iffy job prospects, I might pursue a different route.

Time for a different route?

Happily, there is a different route, one that involves a lot less expense and may be more likely to yield a solid career. It’s called an associate’s degree from the U.S. community college system, one of the nation’s most underrated educational assets.

Community colleges play a different role than do four-year public and private colleges and universities. In their towns and cities, community college administrators typically work closely with area employers, the very people most likely to be able to identify the workplace skills needed now, and those that will be required in the future. Then the community colleges tailor degree programs to train folks for those fields. It’s a direct “needs equal jobs” equation that community colleges attempt to solve.

In many cases, the skills needed by employers and offered up by community colleges are those that prepare students for “mid-skill jobs,” the kinds of jobs requiring more than a high school degree and less than a four-year college bachelor’s degree. In recent years, many mid-skill jobs have gone unfilled for lack of trained candidates, while jobs calling for four-year degrees or better have been overloaded with candidates.

So what might these mid-skill jobs be? I turned to Erin Brooks, spokeswoman for Harper College in Palatine, IL, one of the Chicago area’s leading community colleges, to name some of those jobs, and the yearly incomes they generate.

Four of Harper’s top programs train students for the mid-skills jobs of registered nurse ($63,900 median annual wage in 2009, per Illinois Department of Employment Security), Dental Hygienists ($62,100), Firefighters ($51,800), and welders $33,900.

According to Illinois Department of Employment Security’s labor market economist Mitch Daniels, other mid-skill jobs calling for community college associate’s degrees include carpenters and electricians, machinists, health information technicians, auto service technicians, chefs, accounting technicians, and computer support specialists.

Jobs going begging

In many parts of the country, great mid-skill jobs like auto service technicians and HVAC technicians are going unfilled, Harper College president Ken Ender told me not long ago. These are not the old “grease monkey” jobs of yore, but sophisticated and technical jobs requiring utilization of head and hands. HVAC and auto service tech jobs once went to high school grads, but today demand associate’s degree-level skills.

Ender adds, “Most of the new jobs of mid-skills levels haven’t even been created yet.” Many will require knowledge of two or more of these disciplines: biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technology, and manufacturing technology.

When you consider that not everyone wants or needs to gain a four-year degree, community colleges loom as an even wiser educational solution.

Jeannine Kubalewski, for instance, is a graduate of Harper College’s Fire Science program, and now works for the Elk Grove Township Fire Department in northwest suburban Chicago as a firefigher/paramedic.

“I really wasn’t into the 9-to-5 office thing; it wasn’t something I wanted to do,” Kubalewski said last year. “I always wanted to do something that most people don’t … I love my job, I love where I work … I wouldn’t change a thing about it.”

But let’s say the community college grad gets into the workforce and decides to take their education further. They’ll find this is a flexible route. So says Glenda Gallisath, associate vice-president for academic affairs at Glen Ellyn, IL-based College of DuPage, another premier Chicago-area community college. “What typically happens is they … Are successful in their fields, they’re valuable employees who know the technical side. But to move up into management, their employer encourages them to go back and get a bachelor’s degree … Many employers will support them financially, and the four-year institutions give them incentives to come, like flexible schedules.”

So if you’re seeking a way to slash tens of thousands of dollars in line item expenses from your household budget, while also helping to possibly better ensure your son, daughter, or perhaps even yourself gains skills in demand by area employers, you might want to trade a bachelor’s for an associate’s – at least at first.

See, the whole issue is really a question of degree.

Published on August 4th, 2011
Modified on August 8th, 2011 - 12 Comments
Filed under: Education, Working

About the author: is an independent writer in Chicago who has written over 2,000 articles appearing in publications such as Barron's, Boston Globe, Chicago Sun-Times, LA Times, and more.

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12 Responses to “Robbery in the First Degree”

  1. 1
    Michael Harr @ TodayForward Says:

    This is an EXCELLENT article. The community colleges in our country have long been overlooked for the value they provide not only to students, but also to employers in the community. The amount of money saved by taking this route can be enormous. In addition, when comparing a community college to many of the for-profit colleges, there is little doubt that community colleges provide orders of magnitude greater value.

  2. 2
    Paula @ AffordAnything.org Says:

    I think the real problem is that too many 18-year-olds go to college because they think they’re “supposed to,” without any idea of what they want to do. College is an expensive way to “find yourself.”

    If you don’t know what you want to do, I’d advocate volunteering, interning, or traveling for a year or two. This will help you — hopefully — narrow your focus and then make an informed decision about whether you want to go into a career that requires a college degree or not. It could also save you from taking too many off-topic classes that results in a bachelor’s degree taking 5 or more years.

  3. 3
    PT Says:

    I’m strongly suggesting to our children that they consider community college to cover the first year, perhaps even two, of a standard Bachelor’s four-year degree. The first year or two is often basic stuff like freshman english or General Whatever 101. At credit hours that are fifth or less of a big state school, it can trim 20% to 40% off the total cost of the degree. Plus it’s not that expensive should their first choice for a major turn out to not be a good fit.

    I’ll also add, though, that I see lot of ads for diploma mills for the semi-skilled trades like welding or med technician. I’ve seen exposes on some of these schools, and it’s a Buyer Beware situation.

  4. 4
    almost there Says:

    Welding is a tough job and bad on the eyes (yes, even with protection). If one wants to learn to weld, a hitch in the navy as a hull tech. would be the way to go. As for college, all interested in going or funding college for their children should watch the video “The college conspiricy”. Google it. You will learn lots by viewing it.

  5. 5
    Patrick Says:

    I think it would be great if we could get an entire generation of students to boycott the traditional 4 year universities and go straight to community colleges.

    What if they made having an associate degree a requirement to even get into a “university”?

    Why should I pay thousands of dollars for math 101 when it costs $1,500 at a community college? I would love nothing more than to see the big schools lose money and have to change their ways.

  6. 6
    Isabelle Moore Says:

    Even though it’s completely up to the children whether they want to pursue a higher level of education, I strongly suggest that they be given the gift of college education. There’s no way in telling what would happen to them in the future so I think it’s best to prepare them for the world.

  7. 7
    Kevin Says:

    While you make some good points, also consider the degrees many of these people are pursuing. We are need (as a country) of scientists, doctors, engineers, and teachers. We need innovators and inventors.

    Many of our colleges are cranking out journalism and humanities majors. While I would argue the free press and arts are important parts of societies, there aren’t enough to drive an economy.

    Ours kids graduate with history degrees, yet we wonder they there aren’t any high paying jobs for them? Because there aren’t any. There never really have been.

  8. 8
    Shawanda @ You Have More Than You Think Says:

    We really need to get real about the usefulness of college. Fortunately, I received a scholarship that financed the bulk of my 4-year college education. My brother, on the other hand, received no such financial assistance. I remember my mother emphasizing to my brother the importance of learning a skill or trade, either on the job or at a vocational school, over 15 years ago. My brother was not 4-year university material. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. He’d have done a great disservice to himself by wasting time getting a degree he’d never use when he could’ve been working. The opportunity cost of obtaining a useless degree is too high.

  9. 9
    Chris Says:

    Yes, there are many jobs in the medical field, for example that require an associate’s degree and pay $18+ per hour to start. Keep all your options open.

  10. 10
    Joe Lucus Says:

    We have all heard this before, college isn’t for everyone.

  11. 11
    payday loans Says:

    i think joe lucus you are saying right collage is for every one and the right of any body to take the admission of any collage in any time ..

  12. 12
    thesis proofreading Says:

    Although there are usually few trade restrictions within countries, international trade is usually regulated by governmental quotas and restrictions, and often taxed by tariffs.

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