I heard a piece on NPR that purported to answer this question: Are cities overrated? The idea was that while many people in rural areas whose job opportunities have dried up and who are struggling financially are moving to big cities for work, that move doesn’t always work out so well.
Economist David Autor found that traditional wisdom said people with college degrees could do well in big cities, as they were able to move up the “financial escalator” to a higher socioeconomic plane; people in the low-paying service industry usually could survive, but didn’t move on that escalator; and people without college degrees, but in a middle tier-type job, such as manufacturing, were able to get on the escalator and move to a higher floor. However, Autor found, over the decades, those middle-tier jobs have largely disappeared because of automation and outsourcing, and so by 2015, those non-college graduates generally got on a moving sidewalk instead of an escalator, going forward, but not up (www.npr.org/2019/06/20/734496883/are-big-cities-overrated-economists-say-yes-in-some-cases).
That piece reminded me of a paper written by one of my students this past fall. Her thesis was that we put too much emphasis on getting a college education and not enough emphasis on promoting two-year degrees and highly-skilled trades internships and apprenticeships. Her argument was that although statistics show a wage gap between those with college educations and those without, a closer look at the numbers shows that a career based on a two-year degree can be both financially rewarding and, while not a guarantee, an opportunity for steady employment.
One of her supporting points dealt with the amount of debt an average college student carries at his or her graduation. Depending on the source – and many address this issue – four-year college students in 2018 graduated with an average of between $28,500 and $37,172 in student loans, with an average $400 monthly payment. For my parents, that was two houses. For these kids, that is one Tesla or two Fords. When I graduated from law school, I paid 3% interest on my loan at $125 per month. The average interest rate today is 4.5% and over, according to different sources. This means that someone graduating from college with average debt will pay $400 per month for several years, and maybe for most of his or her working life.
My student’s research showed that those with community college degrees or trade certifications had less debt, began working sooner, and paid off their debt more quickly than their four-year institution counterparts. She argued that the two-year earlier jump into a job put those students on a stronger financial footing in the long run, even if their ending salaries were not as high as those who graduated two years later with a more advanced degree. She argued that our educational system should promote two-year degrees with as much emphasis as we do four-year degrees.
She certainly convinced me. And fortunately for us, we have a good example of what a two-year degree can provide in State Fair Community College. For those pursuing four-year degrees, SFCC is an affordable jumping off point. For others, it is an affordable way to get prepared for the workforce of today and the future. SFCC educates its students in all things computer, drafting, welding, electronics, automotive technology, artificial intelligence related to programmable logic controllers, construction management, and so much more. The key is that those kinds of jobs are actually in demand, not only here in mid-Missouri, but all over the country – all over the world. The U.S. has low unemployment now, but high-skilled, highly-paid tech jobs are in demand, and many remain open because prospective employees do not have the skills required for those jobs (www.cnbc.com/2019/06/18/there-are-70000-open-tech-jobs-here-is-how-firms-are-hiring-for-them.html). SFCC is working toward preparing its students to fill those jobs – with a two-year degree, a smaller debt load, and the opportunity to work either here at home, in a big city, or somewhere else in the world.
We should take my student’s – and economists’ – messages seriously. College isn’t for everyone – but education is. Students should choose the one that gives them the best opportunity for a better life – even if it isn’t in a big city. After all, they’re overrated.