By Janice Lane Palko
So, what do you plan to do after graduation? That’s a question that many high school students and their parents contemplate and possibly one that causes them much anxiety. In the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic with remote classes, soaring educational costs, and a sluggish economy, many students and their parents are questioning the need to attend a traditional college and are mulling over enrolling in a vocational or technical school.
While some students are certain that they want to attend college, students not sure what they should do may want to consider several factors. The first is the cost. According to the College Board, for 2022-23, the average published (sticker) tuition and fees for full-time students are:
• Public four-year in-state: $10,950
• Public four-year out-of-state: $28,240
• Public two-year in-district: $3,860
• Private nonprofit four-year: $39,400
Clearly, higher education is a huge investment, most likely second only to the purchase of a home. But it can be even more costly as Resume Genius states, “only 62% of students who enrolled in college in 2012 graduated with a bachelor’s degree within six years. The other 38% of students either took longer than six years to graduate or dropped out.”
“I’ve always known that I wanted to go to college after graduation, and the decision to attend a four-year university was made easy after I saw all the options and communities that I could be a part of,” said Clay McArthur, 18. “For some people, there are inherent risks to taking on debt that often comes with higher education, but I look at attending college as an investment into my own future. There isn’t a specific road outlined for me to travel for my post-college graduation, but the opportunity to study something I’m passionate about and to find exactly what it is that I want to do while I continue to mature is a super enticing offer. On top of that, having the chance to attend a prestigious university is hard to pass up.”
Jay Piotrowski, 17, is a senior at Our Lady of Sacred Heart. Although he’s not sure what he’s going to do exactly after graduation, he does know that he doesn’t want to attend a traditional four-year college. “I’m open-minded to the trades or some sort of schooling, but ultimately I’d like to own my own business,” said Jay. “I’d rather come out of high school and start making money and working my way toward my goal than come out of college four years later at 22 in a ton of debt.”
With higher education being such a large investment, like Jay, many are considering what the return will be on that investment. It is often noted that those graduates with a bachelor’s degree on average over the course of a lifetime will earn $1 million more than a worker with only a high-school education. But that is if the graduate finds a college-level job. And these days, that’s a big if. Research shows that 40% of college graduates are underemployed in their first job, and two-thirds of these grads will still be underemployed five years later. At the 10-year mark, for those workers who were underemployed for five years, three-quarters of them will still be without a college-level job.
“Most of our enrollment is in degree programs (Associate/Bachelor),” said Barry Shepard, Vice President, Marketing & Communications, Pittsburgh Technical College. “But what distinguishes PTC is that we have the right programs where the curriculum is kept current for market needs. We work with major employers on our advisory boards to ensure what PTC faculty are teaching is what is needed in the industries.”
PTC notes that it has the right blend of technical and applied learning in the right environment for its students to receive the education that allows them to hit the ground running. They also acquire real experience through an internship that is actually built into the curriculum as a required quarter.
“This all results in 93% of our graduates being placed in their field. You will often see colleges quoting placement rates, but very few actually use the phrase ‘in-field,’ and this is the most important qualifier,” said Shepard. “It means PTC graduates are being employed in the areas where they have passion. It’s the area they chose to pursue for their degrees.”
PTC offers more than 30 career-focused programs. “We like to say that PTC is where knowledge meets know-how,” said Shepard, who notes that they enroll students right out of high school as well as a high percentage of non-traditional students aged from 19-35. “The non-traditional student is about half of our enrollment and includes transfer students, people who want to change careers, and re-entry students, among others.”
For students not sure about attending college, there are other options. For many, professional training at a trade school, technical school, or in an apprenticeship program may be a smarter choice. These students can enter the workforce earlier than those attending a four-year college or university and begin earning a living. They are trained specifically for a career, eliminating fluff courses or ones that have no relevance to their career. In addition, many high-paying jobs don’t require a degree and these industries are desperate for workers.
The key to a brighter future is self-knowledge. Many students need to resist the push to automatically attend a traditional college, and with the help of their parents, evaluate their strengths, desires, and career goals and decide what best suits their individual needs.