Americans who are hoping to avoid the shackles of student debt and proceed straight from high school into the workforce have more options for well-paid gainful employment than they might think. Even as the ROI on college degrees continues to decline, employers in certain blue-collar industries are struggling to fill management jobs that pay as much, or more, than jobs that require a college degree.
One such employer, 84 Lumber Co, is spending millions on advertising to spread its message that a management-track job at one of its stores can be more valuable than a college degree. The company pays trainees $40,000 a year, but employees in charge of top-grossing stores can earn as much as $200,000 a year. And some of those stores, managers earn more than $1 million. All without paying $60,000 a year in tuition to double major in art history and women’s studies, according to Bloomberg.
And 84 Lumber is hardly alone in it recruiting push: Associated General Contractors of Colorado is spending $2 million on recruiting and apprenticeships. Carpentry Contractors Co. in Minnesota hired a comedian to star in recruiting videos that have racked up a quarter-million views on YouTube.
One trainee quoted by Bloomberg was supposed to be the first person in his family to graduate from college, but he dropped out of Kent State and took a job at 84 Lumber instead. When asked why he left, he said he believes the experience of his management-training job with 84 Lumber is more valuable than that conferred by a college degree.
“Sabastian Kleis, the son of a waitress from Rust Belt Ohio, was supposed to be the first person in his family to graduate from college. Instead, he dropped out of Kent State University after two years. By most accounts, Kleis, 24, should be flipping burgers. But on a recent afternoon a lumber company was grooming him for a management job.
“You can go to college and learn the theology of the Roman Empire,” says Kleis, who just completed a three-day training program at 84 Lumber’s rural Pennsylvania headquarters. “You learn all this ridiculous nonsense, and when you get out, what are you applying that to? I know how to frame a house.”
Almost half of 84 Lumber’s trainees have no college degree, Bloomberg reports. Kleis was one of 15 who attended the latest three-day “Lumber Camp,” which is held in Eighty Four, the Pennsylvania town (population 700) near Pittsburgh where the company is based. Attendees learned construction basics, such as how to take proper measurements and how to turn a design blueprint into a “take-off,” the list of all materials and quantities needed.
Meanwhile, students who attend conventional four-year colleges are finding themselves in increasingly unsustainable financial binds.
As WSJ reports, the cost of college attendance is rising while the financial benefits of a degree are declining, aggravating the debt burden that students are forced to shoulder. Tuition costs have increased by 74.5% over the period between 2000 and 2016.
“From 2000 to 2016, the tuition-and-fees component of the Consumer Price Index rose 3.54% annually (74.5% over the entire period), adjusting for overall inflation. With sluggish business investment, a slowdown in income growth has aggravated the rising burden of paying for higher education. American families have taken on more than $1.3 trillion in student-loan debt—more than what they borrow with credit cards or to buy cars.”
“The earnings advantage associated with a bachelor’s degree compared with a high school diploma is no longer growing like it once did. Census data show that the average annual earnings differential between high school and four-year college graduates rose sharply, to $32,900 in 2000 (expressed in 2015 dollars) from $19,776 in 1975—only to fall to $29,867 by 2015. In the late 20th century rising higher-education costs were offset by the increasing financial benefits associated with a bachelor’s degree. Since 2000 those benefits have declined, while costs have continued to rise.”
Rising costs have also spurred rising default rates for student borrowers. According to the Fed, delinquency rates for student loans – which cannot be discharged in bankruptcy - have surpassed auto and mortgage loans.
More high school graduates are also choosing trade schools, which require less time and tuition money, but graduates end up with a specific set of skills. Trade school graduates leave school prepared for the industry they enter, where they can earn much higher wages than many four-year degree-holders, according to Bloomberg.
The rise of identity politics and the intolerant left are transforming campuses into hostile environments, especially for young men, for whom dropout rates have soared. That’s unsurprising, considering many of them are increasingly being pre-judged by their female peers - and even in some cases faculty - as entitled burgeoning rapists. Over the past decade, 30% of male freshmen dropped out before starting a second year.
With all this focus on microaggressions and trigger warnings, its unsurprising that colleges are doing an increasingly poor job of educating their students.
Recent data show that, while the cost of college degrees rises, the quality of these degrees in terms of their impact on students’ critical-thinking skills is declining, especially at flagship public universities, according to the College Learning Assessment Plus test.
“At more than half of schools, at least a third of seniors were unable to make a cohesive argument, assess the quality of evidence in a document or interpret data in a table”. The outcomes were the worst in large, flagship schools: “At some of the most prestigious flagship universities, test results indicate the average graduate shows little or no improvement in critical thinking over four years."
Even President Donald Trump, who famously attended the University of Pennsylvania, is trying to help students find gainful employment without obtaining a degree.
This month, President Donald Trump issued an order doubling money for apprenticeships, saying they enabled students to secure “great jobs” without college. “Apprentices earn while they learn,” he said.