Thursday, April 14, 2011

What Are the Alternatives to $100K in Student Debt?

Are there credible alternatives to $100,000 in debt for college? Yes.

Correspondent D.S., with one daughter in college and other children nearing graduation from high school, asks: what are the credible alternatives to $100,000 in debt for college? D.S. mentioned the relative paucity of apprenticeships in the U.S., and this is certainly a critical "missing factor" in credible alternatives.

There has been a spate of articles recently supporting the idea that college is overrated as a career path and the better alternative is to become an entrepreneur out of high school. For example:

Scott Adams (Dilbert) on how to get a real education

James Altucher on entrepreurism/starting businesses

In response to D.S.'s excellent question, I'd like to make some broad-brush points for context. Let's first stipulate that there are no easy answers. Education, legitimate university degrees, blue collar skills and entrepreneural enterprise all have advantages and opportunities, but the reality is that the job market and economy are difficult and may get tougher in the years ahead. I don't believe cheerleading or sugar-coating the realities is helpful.

I personally exited college in the recessionary year of 1975, and was savaged by the deepest postwar recession to date in 1981-82. Things were not that great circa 1973-82, but the current financial and political crisis is even worse.

1. A few generations ago, a college degree in any subject was a "ticket punched by an authorized gatekeeper" that qualified the bearer to enter the white-collar workforce. Those entering the blue-collar workforce either started work at a factory, entered a union-organized and operated apprenticeship program, or earned a two-year degree in a trade or skill at a community college.

2. For the past two generations, a liberal arts degree was a sufficient "qualifer/ticket" to work in the rapidly expanding FIRE industries--finance, insurance and real estate. The medical and education fields were also expanding such that training in these fields practically guaranteed the graduate a job somewhere.

Now the FIRE economy is shrinking--ultimately a healthy development for the economy-- and the medical and education sectors are starting to be pared back as government spending has exceeded the carrying capacity of the economy.

3. As factories closed and production moved to Asia, factory jobs that could be learned in a few hours (or even minutes) have mostly vanished in a specific American version of globalization. I say American because the situation is quite different in Japan and Germany, two exporting powerhouses with much different trade and domestic labor policies. "Globalization" may be global but its characteristics are unique within each nation.

4. Dirty, repetitive work (slaughterhouses, construction, etc.) has been filled by immigrants, legal and illegal, a trend which has pushed wages down for broad swaths of blue-collar work.

5. A broad range of skilled blue-collar trades such as pipefitting are having trouble finding workers willing to complete the training. These are high-wage difficult jobs which are apparently no longer valued.

6. The kinds of jobs which cannot be exported are shifting to lower-skill/wage labor such as caring for the elderly, janitorial services, farm work, etc. At the upper end, work such as legal research that was once considered safe from globalization is increasingly vulnerable to software automation or offshoring.

7. The U.S. has an implicit immigration policy that skews wages down for most manual labor jobs and increases the value of high-tech skills: unlimited immigration at the low-skill level and restricted immigration for high-level skills. Thus the unfilled jobs in the U.S. are those demanding specific high-level software skills. At this level, Silicon Valley/San Francisco Web 2.0 start-ups are actively poaching senior software engineers from each other.

8. If education is viewed as an investment, then the cost of that investment should have a return that leverages the investment.

In other words, taking on $100,000 of debt to obtain a liberal arts degree that qualifies one to work at Starbucks is simply a poor investment. If you borrow $250,000 to attend law school and then discover you loathe the actual practice of law, that was a poor investment.

9. There is a "long tail" characteristic to the relative value of various university degrees. Below the top tranch of a dozen or so elite universities, the value in the marketplace for degrees drops very quickly. A second-rank university degree is worth considerably less than an elite degree, but not much more than a third-tier university degree.

All those "100 best colleges" lists are basically marketing material for the education industry. Once you're out in the real world, what you know how to do in the real world and who you know is more important than the issuer of your diploma, unless you are brilliant and driven enough to have graduated from a top-tier elite university (Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Caltech, etc.)

10. The field of study is more important than the university. Those graduating with liberal arts degrees from top state schools have little advantage in the real world over someone with the same degree from a lesser-ranked university. To the person who is considering hiring you, it boils down to this: you have to be the lowest-cost, least-hassle solution to their problem. Whether you graduated from NYU or Central Florida State is not the issue.

11. All work has value, dignity and merit. Since you'll be doing something for the rest of your life, paid and/or unpaid, it's a good idea to choose a career or trade or field that you like (or don't actively hate). Graduating without any practical application for your degree is only OK if you've learned a practical skill in a parallel job environment.

12. All the fun creative work like art, writing, playing music, film-making, etc. pays poorly or not at all. So you're going to have to have some other source of income to pursue your creative work.

To answer the question: are there credible alternatives to $100,000 in debt for college? The basic alternative is one many are already pursuing: earn as many credits as you can at the local community college, and then transfer to a state university for the final two years. Live at home or as cheaply as possible, and find some job, either formal or informal, which offers another platform for learning/meeting people and also generates income to offset the costs of tuition, fees, books, etc.

There are creative solutions to housing and finding paying work, but they take effort. Failure is your friend: if something isn't working, try something else. An amazing number of people have no interest in scutwork like yardwork, shoveling snow, taking the trash bins out to the street, etc. You might seek out landlords who would trade this sort of labor for a rent reduction.

When I was working my way through college (yes, in a deep recession 1973-75), I looked into buying a boat to live on, as at the time berthing at dilapidated piers was still cheap. The conventional is always costly, the unconventional always takes some legwork and tolerance for rejection/failure.

As readers of Survival+ know, I am a fan of what I call hybrid work, the idea that cobbling together several jobs or enterprises offers more flexibility and opportunity than a traditional full-time job (which are scarce these days).

I gained two educations in parallel in my college years: I earned a (financially worthless) philosophy degree and I learned the construction trades by working part-time. (Since I paid for the university degree in cash, the investment and return were aligned.) I used the trade skills to earn a living but never regretted pursuing the pleasure of learning on campus.

Being a workaholic helps.

Since formal apprenticeships are rare (unfortunately), then you may have to seek out a master and fashion your own apprencticeship. In the old countries (Japan, for example), apprenticeships are long, arduous and unpaid. What you learn is what you earn.

I know a number of wonderfully skilled craftsmen whose skills will die with them because there are no young people willing to learn from them. They are one-man shops and can't afford to pay much; the learning itself would have to be the "pay."

But skills are the ultimate leverage and ultimate payoff for any investment.

The well-known "secret value" to an elite education is the contacts you make there. It's who you know, definitely. But even if you're not in an elite university, you can build a network of useful contacts in the real world. Seek out mentors; most successful people are happy to share their experience and give you some advice if you're willing to ask and listen.

If you're considering joining the Armed Forces to earn G.I. Bill benefits, make sure you get it all in writing from your recruiter before you sign up, and make sure you understand the benefits package you're earning. If you play your cards right (and/or get lucky), you might learn a highly valued skill like welding during your service. My niece's husband is earning a nice wage from the welding skills he learned in the Coast Guard.

The person who enters a field half-heartedly seeking a steady job will probably lose out in the real world to someone who actually enjoys the work. We are all drawn to various kinds of work; try enough different kinds of work (unpaid if necessary) to discover what you like better than other options.

If you're tossing around for career options, think about what the future likely holds in store. Off the top of my head, I would guess security will be a growing field: computer security, remote surveillance cameras, etc. There will be drilling rigs in the U.S. for a long time to come, and a need for petroleum-related engineers. Many are following the resurgence of bicycling and local farming.

The only person who can ascertain what will sustain your curiosity and interest is you, of course. All that the rest of us can do is toss out ideas. It isn't easy finding a career or trade, or a paying job. But since we're all going to be doing something one way or the other, it might as well be something we care about and that aligns with our personality and abilities.

Readers forum:

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