Career and Jobs

Does College Make Sense For Your Career? The Answer Is A Big Maybe

College is no longer the only way to level up your skills. Alternatives are emerging—so which one is right for you?

The college degree, once considered the surest gateway to a rewarding career, isn’t delivering like it used to. A recent report found that only 46% of U.S. college graduates are working in their field of study. Twenty-five percent are earning less than $30,000 a year, and what’s worse, approximately one out of seven earns less than $15,000 per year. (For reference, an individual annual income of $14,097 is considered below the federal poverty threshold.)

Add student loan debt to that picture—an average of almost $41,000 of it per borrower—and it’s far from a pretty sight.

No one goes to college planning to earn less than the federal poverty threshold. In fact, a March survey found that the Class of 2022 is overestimating their starting pay by more than $50,000. “College is expensive, and the return on investment may not be as big as graduates are expecting,” says Rebecca Croucher, SVP Marketing & Sales Enablement at ManpowerGroup. It’s a rude awakening for many people to discover that the cost of higher education has fast outstripped the earning potential it brings.

So is college the right step for you? Instead of a resounding “yes,” today’s answer is more like “maybe.” Here’s why.

The big picture

While college does come with a hefty price tag, it still offers many benefits that aren’t easily replicated. “The significance of a college degree should not be discounted; it is designed to not only educate, but to also round out one’s skill set in communication, analysis and collaboration —all soft skills that shape the person’s overall ability to succeed in the workplace,” says James Wallace, EVP, Head of Operations at AllCampus.

To make the right choice, you need to step back and look at the big picture. “One instance where it is almost always worth it is if someone is experiencing burnout or dissatisfaction in their current job or career,” says Wallace. “In such situations, it is helpful to assess whether or not they enjoy the type of work they are doing, the organization where they are working and whether or not they can see the career growth they expected.”

Of course, currently employed professionals who are considering further education need to think long and hard about how more education would address their specific gaps and advance their career. It’s not enough to return to school merely hoping for the best; you need a clear goal and plan to reach it.

It’s also helpful to consider that returning to school doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing decision. “There are many options for people looking to improve their professional life through further education,” says Wallace. Yes, you can enroll in a graduate degree program to change career paths entirely—but you can also take a few credential courses in leadership skills to take on a new management role or otherwise amplify your current skill set.

The point is, education is no longer a one-size-fits-all solution. There are endless ways to customize it for your unique situation and objectives.

Alternatives to college

Though college can still be a great choice for many people, it’s clearly no longer the only way to win. What other viable pathways are emerging?

  • Micro-credentials: I’ve covered these bite-sized qualifications and certificate programs before. In a nutshell, they demonstrate your skills, knowledge and/or experience in a given subject area or capability. “These types of short-courses show employers that an employee has the competency required to perform a certain skill,” says Wallace. “Micro-credentials can act as a stand-in where traditional college degrees might have previously been required.”
  • Certificates and Credentials: These industry-based programs can be a great way to master a highly specific and/or technical skill. “A good number of people pursuing certificates are working professionals looking to fill skill gaps or make a pivot with specific new technical or practical skills,” says Wallace. Certifications and credentials may eliminate the need for a full-blown college degree to build the exact skill set you’re after.
  • Apprenticeships: One of the best ways to master a skill set is to work directly with someone who already has. “Apprenticeships are a great way to learn a trade while getting paid,” says Croucher. “Some apprenticeships will even pay your tuition or offer stipends for educational expenses.” Apprenticeships aren’t just for young workers; anyone looking to make a career change should look into these opportunities.

As technology evolves, so do the requirements for the workers using it. Keeping pace can often seem overwhelming when new technologies are being launched every day, but Wallace believes that what’s most important is keeping a pulse on what’s needed for your specific industry.

“By completing short-courses like micro-credentials or certifications, employees can complete a new program once a quarter, for example,” says Wallace. “This way, keeping up with current trends is attainable and can be done at an employee’s preferred pace and at a reasonable cost as opposed to returning to school, which isn’t always attainable for everyone.”

Making the most of further training

If, after weighing the pros and cons, you determine that more education (in whatever form) will benefit your career trajectory, here are some boxes to check before you make it happen.

  • Check for employer-paid tuition. “Many companies, especially in today’s tight labor market, are offering soft benefits like tuition reimbursement, professional development stipends or internal and external reskilling and upskilling opportunities to their employees,” says Wallace. “Companies appreciate when employees want to further their knowledge and skills, and more often than not, are often willing to help financially.” See what your employer offers—it never hurts to ask.
  • Check your own availability. “You should also consider how much time and attention you have available to invest in a return to school,” says Wallace, “so that you seek a program that is structured with the appropriate levels of flexibility around your other commitments.” In other words, be sure you’re not biting off more than you can manage.
  • Check your goal and plan. “Another way to navigate this transition is to ensure that the courses you enroll in have practical use at your current or desired job,” says Wallace. “Do your research on requirements for those positions and prioritize your studies toward those goals, as well as addressing any other potential skill gaps on your resume.” Don’t just go for it—know why you’re going, and go with purpose.

Professional skills are the future

Though Wallace believes that the college degree is still recognized and respected in many professional settings, he notes that more and more organizations are dropping the degree requirement for open positions. “This trend is especially pronounced in technically driven roles, where the skills and competencies that a person has are likely more relevant than a 2- or 4-year college degree,” he says.

This new emphasis on skills isn’t just for technical abilities, however. “No matter the job or industry, people skills will always be highly valued,” says Wallace. “While hard skills like proficiency in code and application development are important for many jobs, it’s the soft skills that are invaluable and what employers are looking for in their hires.”

Wallace cites Monster’s Future of Work global report, which found that 63% of employers would hire someone with transferable skills like teamwork, time management or leadership, then train them on the technical aspects of the job.

These transferable skills are known by many names: soft skills, power skills or, as I call them, professional skills. These traits and abilities, transferable across all industries, are the true currency of the workforce. And you can learn them anywhere.

Additional formal education may or may not make sense for you, but prioritizing your professional skills is always a smart move. In fact, upping your game in this area is the one investment where there’s no “maybe” about it.

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