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Is a 4-year college the best choice?

Graduation season is starting. It is a time for congratulations on accomplishments whether it is a high school or college graduation. Some students will be moving into the real world of work and careers including the military. Others will be heading to college or graduate school. Another group of graduates will be heading to community and technical college, or a trade school.

This week at a meeting I heard Dr. Sarah Armstrong Tucker, Chancellor Community and Technical College System of West Virginia, speak. We learned that West Virginia has more students in four year colleges than in community colleges. In most states that is reversed. Before heading off to a four- year college, high school graduates should ask, “Is the degree I will earn worth the time and money I will spend?” Even better questions are; “What kind of a job will my degree prepare me for?” “Is there a demand for this job?” What can I expect to get paid?” If I choose to take out a loan to pay for my education, will I be able to pay it back?” And, “Does a two- year degree make more sense than a four- year degree for me?

According to a 2011 report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workplace, more than one in four people with associate’s degrees end up making more than the average of somebody with a bachelor’s degree.

In fact, many technical associate’s degrees offer first- year pay of more than $70,000 according to College Measures, which tracks earnings and other outcomes for higher education. I am an adjunct professor at Pierpont Community and Technical College. I know that my students are getting job offers in excess of $50,000 and they all have jobs. Just as important the cost of their two- year degree is about $15,000. Compare this to the $25,000- $50,000 cost per year for a four- year degree. By the time a four- year student graduates my students have already earned over $100,000 for their first two years of work with small or no loans for their education to pay back. Most will be able to get a loan to buy the new pickup truck of their dreams now that they have a good paying job.

We have a family friend who earned a four- year degree and couldn’t find a job. He chose to attend Pierpont and earn his 2- year associate’s degree. He graduated 2 years ago and is still here, in the West Virginia he loves, earning over $70,000 a year. Plus over time. Plus benefits. Plus a bonus. He loves what he is doing. He is considering getting a MBA and his employer will pay for it.

Demand for skilled building trades people like welders, pipefitters, electricians etc. and technicians will increase in the MOV based on the growth we expect. As our region grows, demand for other careers requiring 2-year associate degrees in health care, IT or other areas will also increase. We also learned from Dr. Tucker that West Virginia has state of the art training facilities with experienced instructors. What we lack are students to fill them. Scholarships are going unused because of lack of students to take them.

Dr. Tucker believes that this is because of a lack of awareness of what the community college system has to offer. I’m concerned that high school guidance counselors may be encouraging young people to go to college who would be better served by a two- year associate’s degree. I told my students last August, “If you graduate as planned in May and stay drug free, a $50,000+ job will be looking for you.” Half of my class had two job offers as early as October.

Community college or the skilled trades may be a good place to start for folks that are unsure about a career path. To be successful in the economy of the future will require post high school training of some type. In West Virginia, currently the majority of students believe that is 4-year college. Many of these students will end up working low wage jobs that they could have filled without spending $150,000 for a degree. They need to know that they have an alternative by attending our excellent community college system or getting into a skilled trade. They will be able to fill our state’s demand for skilled workers and have a successful career.

Thoughts to ponder.

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Greg Kozera is the Director of Marketing for Shale Crescent USA www.shalecrescentusa.com . He has over 40 years of experience in the energy industry. Greg is a leadership expert with a Masters in Environmental Engineering and the author of four books and numerous published articles.

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