With the cost of a college education climbing and the student loan debt crisis showing no signs of abating, many families and students planning for a four-year degree are grappling with the price tag. Between tuition, housing, books, supplies, food and living expenses, a year of college can add up to as much as $50,000 per year. Meanwhile, students embarking on this pricey path are often unprepared for further education, undecided about their major or uninterested in traditional career paths.

A college degree is an investment, so it is important that parents and prospective students treat it as they would any other financial venture — making a reasonable assessment of the quality and conducting a thorough risk-reward analysis. The economics of college have changed drastically over the past 20 years, as have the options for a career. Yet, despite the uncertainties around the cost-benefit of a four-year degree, one fact remains true: Some level of postsecondary education is still a key requisite for future job security and financial stability. According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, two out of three entry-level jobs demand at least some education or training beyond high school.

Luckily, the ways in which we can gain new skills and training are growing rapidly. There are many viable alternatives to a four-year degree that families and students alike can explore to make a well-informed decision and avoid racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. And there are several pathways to a successful career that can be mutually beneficial to a student’s future and their wallet.

A few alternatives that have become increasingly popular and cost-effective include picking up a certificate at a trade school, getting an associate degree and taking two years at a local community college before finishing at a university.


Trades such as plumbing, masonry and electrical, which require journeymen studies and lead to well-paying careers, have enjoyed a renaissance in America over the last decade. Indeed, low unemployment has exacerbated a skilled labor shortage that had been building for years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for electricians in 2018 was $55,190, with the highest 10 percent earning more than $94,620. And specialized roles like aircraft mechanics and heavy-equipment technicians can surpass annual incomes of $100,000 — more than many jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree. What’s more, going to a vocational school or learning a trade as an apprentice, workers can often start earning while they’re in training.

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Getting an associate degree is another affordable way to cultivate a career-oriented skill, like nursing, business and information technology. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the average cost of attending a two-year private, nonprofit institution is approximately $25,000 — without any grants or scholarships that can be earned while in attendance. Meanwhile, some associate degree careers, like air traffic controllers, can earn annual salaries over $120,000.


For those set on specific career fields that require a four-year degree, the “take two and transfer” alternative is the most cost-effective route. By completing all prerequisites at a local community college, costs of tuition and other fees are, on average, two-thirds lower than at a four-year institution, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. This alternative could also help save thousands on other expenses, such as room and board if the student is able to live at home. And the payoff is significant: College degrees are now worth twice as much in the workplace as high school diplomas, with the median bachelor’s holder earning an annual salary of $62,000 while a high school diploma holder makes roughly $36,000.

The financial impact of college presents parents with a great opportunity to have a serious discussion with their children about advancing their education and setting expectations of outcomes, regardless of who is footing the bill. If you’re a parent struggling to identify the right college plan for your student or have questions about alternative options that meet the needs of both you and your student, consult a financial advisor for help — having unbiased third-party guidance based on experience and expertise can be invaluable in helping you and your child meet financial goals that lead to a successful career.

Charlie Dunn is the co-founder of Dunn Perrault & Associates and Wealth Management Advisor with more than 10 years of experience at Northwestern Mutual. He can be reached at charlie.dunn@nm.com.