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Should You Get a Degree or Start a Career in the Skilled Trades?

For decades, Americans have equated a 4-year degree as the gateway to the American dream, and for good reason.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, a bachelor’s degree accounts for an average of $16,900 in additional income, per year, compared to a high school diploma ($30,000 versus $46,900).

When you factor in that difference over an average 30-year career, you’re talking about a $500,000 difference.

But these numbers don’t really tell the whole picture. For starters, not all degrees promise the same increased salary expectations. Just ask former President Barack Obama, who was quoted in 2014 as saying:

“[A] lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career. But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”

The other reality is costs.

The cost of higher education per student has risen by almost five times the rate of inflation since 1983, while graduate salaries have remained stagnant for most of the past decade.

In other words, college graduates are getting less return on their investment.

Now, consider the massive amount of student debt our nation’s young people have. It’s grown so large that many people have chosen to delay – or altogether dismiss – plans of buying a home, starting a business or having children.

They went to college to achieve the American Dream, but their choice is keeping them from realizing that dream.

Folks who choose to pursue a career in skilled labor not only avoid massive student loan debt (many 4-year bachelor degrees now cost upwards of $40,000 per year), but they can begin to start their careers – and earning potential –much sooner. While their college counterparts are racking up debt, young people who pursue a career in skilled labor can rack up their savings.

Let’s take a closer look at the numbers

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, technical and trade school jobs have a median annual salary of $35,720, although with more experience and, based on your job title, this number certainly can and will increase. The median salary for folks with a bachelor’s degree is $46,900.

But since trade school only takes an average of two years to complete (vs. four), that amounts to an additional two years of income for the trade school graduate (or $71,440).

Factor in another roughly $70,000 in costs for many students who take an extra year to graduate from college, and what you have is trade school grads can be more than $140,000 ahead from the start, making up for more than 12 years of difference in income.

The cost of education

On average, trade schools across the nation cost around $33,000, compared to the whopping $127,000 for a bachelor’s degree (meaning a savings of $94,000).

But let’s also assume that students are financing their education with loans at 4% over 10 years. That would mean that the bachelor’s degree will end up costing $154,000, while the trade school degree will cost $40,000 ($114,000 savings just for your choice of degree).

Job security

There’s certainly no secret that many of America’s jobs are being outsourced overseas. But it’s far easier to outsource computer programming work than it is to outsource a welder or licensed practical nurse (LPN), meaning that graduates of a skilled trade school are far more likely to have job prospects immediately after graduation, particularly with the federal government promising to push major infrastructure improvements over the next several years.

Sure, there are many advantages to a four-year degree. But the cost-benefit equation associated with higher education is constantly changing. Frankly, a four-year degree is expensive and isn’t suited for every type of learning style or skill set.

If you like hands-on learning, are excited to get started on your career sooner rather than later, and aren’t interested in racking up incredible debt, then trade school may be your ideal solution.

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