Tanya Perez, who earned an associate’s degree eight years ago, faced a risky proposition: whether to borrow $60,000 in a quest to earn a bachelor’s degree in early education.

Working as a teacher’s aide, she earned about $15 an hour, a slightly higher rate than she would make without her community college sheepskin.

Excited about the prospect of teaching, Ms. Perez fretted about going deep into debt for a four-year degree. There is reason for concern. Student debt, now estimated at $1.4 trillion nationally, is blamed for financially shackling so many college grads and often banishing them to their parents’ basement.

“I can hear my sister’s voice saying, ‘No, don’t do it!” she said. “It’s too dangerous to borrow so much.”

Debt is surely a big reason that fewer Americans today believe that going to college is a good move. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey, only 49% said they believed a four-year degree was worth the time and money, compared with 47% who did not see the value of college. That narrow two-point margin was down from a 15-point spread in favor of college in a survey conducted four years earlier. People between the ages of 18 and 34 were especially skeptical about college. Some 57 percent registered a thumbs down on college, compared to only 29% who saw it as a smart path.

Such sentiments would appear to reflect a disconnect with hard data about the worth of a diploma. College graduates, on average, earn higher incomes, save more for retirement, and experience lower rates of unemployment. Even college grads with student debt are more likely to own a home than those with only a high school diploma.

So why the wariness about academia? College, as many have learned the hard way, is not so valuable unless you graduate.

Tens of millions of Americans have enrolled in college, taken out loans, but left school without a degree. The trap of debt-but-no diploma explains the seeming paradox that those with relatively small loans are much more likely to default than those with large debt. Those with bigger loans were more likely to have finished college and perhaps gone on to graduate school. Those who drop out of college, meanwhile, lack the credentials for the higher-paying jobs needed to repay loans. Some who majored in an esoteric field leave school to find a dearth of jobs. Others were burned by for-profit colleges, which often make big promises, but have very high default rates.

These are the painful realities of the “college experience” for so many. For them, and their parents, it is little wonder that college has left a sour taste.

Andrew Merendino grew up in New Jersey with an aptitude for engineering, but a real passion for cooking. Still in high school, he had landed a good gig in the kitchen of a restaurant.

“But it was drilled into my head in the twelfth grade that you had to go to college,” he said, “or you were nothing.”

He enrolled in a private school in Pennsylvania with a focus on chemical engineering. He left after six semesters, with his interest in engineering fading and his debt rising. After a stint in a community college, he enrolled at the Philadelphia Art Institute to pursue culinary studies. He dropped out after his loans climbed to nearly $90,000.

He now works as an assistant manager in a pizza place. He earns about $18,000 a year. His loans have gone into default. His credit has been ruined. He continues to be contacted by loan collectors. A recent letter informed him that his income tax refund would be seized as payment for unpaid loans. When he tried to finance a car, his loan history triggered an interest rate of a whopping 26.8%.

Merendino, 29, is resigned to the likelihood that defaulting on his loans means he will never realize his dream of operating his own business or buying a house. It could even be a barrier to his hopes to marry and raise a family someday. “My significant other,” he noted, “would have to be willing to take on my risks.”

The insistence that a four-year degree is the only respected path, a message Merendino absorbed and now rejects, infuriates Maggie Thompson, the executive director of Generation Progress, the youth engagement arm of Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank.

“The drumbeat is so ingrained and it stigmatizes community colleges and trade schools,” she said. “For so many people with debt, but no degree, going to a four-year college was definitely not worth it.”

Thompson and others contend that the traditional notion of higher education should be broadened to include associate degrees, certificate credentials, and apprenticeships.

A study by the Georgetown University Center on Study and the Workforce found that 28% of those with an associate’s degree earn more than those with a bachelor’s degree. Andrew Hanson, an analyst with the Georgetown center, pointed to a friend who attended Harvard to study engineering and ultimately took a job as a school guidance counselor, earning less than his sister, who earned a nursing degree at a community college.

Janine Forte watched two older siblings enroll in four-year schools and go into significant debt. She took a more frugal route, commuting to Rowan College of Gloucester County in New Jersey and earning her associate’s degree in two years, without borrowing a cent. Shortly after her 20th birthday, she took a job as a paralegal starting at $40,000, an occupation that can climb toward annual earnings of $100,000.

“I got a jump on starting my career,” she said. “I know a lot of people my age who went to a four-year school, racked up a lot of debt and still don’t know what they want to do.” Without debt, Forte was able to buy a new car for a monthly payment that was almost exactly the same as her sister’s college loan payment.

Many students wait until late in college to draw the dots between a field of study and a job. As a mathematics major at Indiana University, Amanda Gault looked at the looming job market and grew anxious. “I have no idea what I’m going to do with this degree,” she fretted.

Her math teachers had not spent much time on career counseling. “There was never talk about what you were going to do with this afterwards,” Gault said.

She found a solution in a coding boot camp, a six-month, alternative credential program at Northwestern University. While the program did not offer official college credit, she said it made it possible for her to land a sweet job in software development consulting in Chicago.

More than five million well-paying jobs in the U.S. are going unfilled, according to the Labor Department, as employers say they cannot find skilled workers. These are positions in advanced manufacturing, information technology, health care, and construction. The jobs require some education and training beyond high school, but less than a four-year degree. Apprentices, rather than needing to borrow money, are paid while they learn.

“One of the only things that Trump and Obama agreed on was the need for more apprenticeships,” noted Sean Gallagher, a professor of education policy at Northeastern University in Boston.

Thomas Perez, as labor secretary in the Obama administration, promoted apprenticeships as “the other college.” But he lamented that image-minded parents often recoiled at the idea of their sons and daughters taking up a trade.

Such an attitude is pervasive. In high schools across the country, it has become a tradition in the spring to invite seniors to wear shirts emblazoned with the name of their accepted colleges. It is a ritual that celebrates those headed off to fancy schools and inevitably rubs it in the noses of those going to a community college or trade school.

It is worth noting that a union plumber can make $80,000 or more, a fatter paycheck than the average just-out-of-college graduate is likely to earn. Certificate holders in IT, meanwhile, can earn $70,000.

Recruiters from Michelin North America Inc. have appealed directly to parents to find young workers. The company appears at forums for parents of high school students and promotes a program that allows students to attend a two-year program in mechatronics, paid by the employer. While they receive tech training, they earn money working 20 hours a week for Michelin. After obtaining the two-year degree, the students can be hired as full-time technicians, with yearly pay that starts at about $53,000. The company also offers tuition reimbursements for workers if they aspire to more advanced degrees.

But for the most part, incomes and job security rise with levels of education. Some 5.5 million jobs for those with a high school diploma were lost in the Great Recession and only 500,000 have come back in the recovery, according to a Georgetown report. Those without a bachelor’s degree also tend to be more vulnerable to swings in the economy. Construction workers – among those who earn the highest incomes without a college degree – can make a killing in boom times. But they were devastated when the housing market collapsed in 2008.

Over the course of a career, college graduates earn $800,000 more than those with just a high school diploma, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. So why do so many college students leave before earning a degree?

Those most at risk of dropping out are first-generation and lower-income students. From grade school onward, these less advantaged students have been more likely to attend schools that lag in the rigorous preparation for college. They have fewer role models who graduated from college. In many cases, their decision to attend a college can mean being snubbed by friends, sometimes even parents, who suspect the aspiring scholar is taking on airs of superiority.

Upon arrival at college, these students lack the safety net that protects more affluent peers. Students from modest backgrounds are often only a single mishap away from college withdrawal – a financial setback, a family illness, a scrape with the law, a course failure. Wealthier students might see a poor grade as merely a bump in the road. Poorer students, as the Hechinger Report put it in a 2016 summary, are more likely to experience and leave campus.

Without a parent who has attended college, or a high school counselor who has helped forge an academic plan of attack, students often land in college unprepared. “A lot of people go to college not quite sure why they’re there,” said Jeffrey Selingo, the author of College (un)Bound. “And they pick a major because of something they saw on TV.”

Many students, meanwhile, find that they receive little guidance or support from the college. As one faculty member put it: “We tell them, ‘Welcome to college. Here are a thousand courses you can take. Good luck!”

As a result, students often meander and find themselves, as late as senior year, learning that they are short of certain credits needed to graduate. They consequently need to extend the stay at college.

Parents might logically assume that going to a “four-year college” means that you will be going to the college for four years. But graduation is now considered “on time” if it occurs within six years. Spending extra time in school naturally means significantly higher costs. Some students run out of money and give up. Plenty of others decide to take a break to earn money, and a big share of them never return.

Georgia State University has emerged as a leader in boosting graduation rates, the essential key to making college worth it.

Timothy Renick, the college’s vice president for enrollment, said the drop-out problem nudged the school to do more than throw up its hands and lament the familiar litany of problems: poor preparation of students in K-12 schools and state disinvestment in colleges, though these are legitimate issues.  Instead, school officials looked for things it could control.

“We came to the realization that we’re part of the problem,” said Renick. “We’re part of the reason they’re dropping out.”

He cited overly complex bureaucracies, courses that were not being delivered effectively, a serious lack of interaction with students about their academic standing and a failure to adequately keep students on track for graduation.

The school examined records of the hundreds of students who were dropping out each semester. The vast majority had never reached out to an adviser for help.

“Maybe they’re working 45 hours a week in addition to going to school full-time,” said Renick, “and they’re exhausted and overwhelmed.”

The school devised an action plan that included identifying 800 risk factors for dropping out, among them a lack of money, a need for tutoring, signing up for classes that don’t apply to a student’s major, personal problems.

Officials created a “GPS advising” program that uses computer algorithms to track each student’s progress on a daily basis. If a problem is detected, a counselor receives an alert the next morning and reaches out to the student.

“We used to wait until a student had three or four “D”s before intervening,” Renick said. Now the school steps in after the first “D” and talks with the student about ways to improve, often tutoring.

Student progress is closely monitored in the first semester classes, where performance correlates strongly with graduation rates. Interventions now occur as early as three weeks into the semester.

In addition, the school provides a seven-week prep session during the summer for incoming freshman who have been deemed to need more preparation.

Georgia State today graduates more black students than any other non-profit college in the nation. Graduation rates have soared, and not because struggling students are being shifted to “softer” majors. In the last five years, the number of underrepresented minorities and low-income students completing STEM majors has doubled.

When it comes to assessing the worth of a degree major at a specific public college, students and families are stymied by a Federal ban against releasing career and financial outcomes of graduates.

A bipartisan group in Congress, including Elizabeth Warren and Orin Hatch, have called for a repeal of the measure, known as the Student Unit Record Ban. Supporters of the ban cite privacy concerns for its former students.

The Young Invincibles, an advocacy group that supports a repeal of the ban, says students, as consumers of education, deserve to know more about the prospects of the “return on their investment.” In the view of Tom Allison, policy and research director of the Invincibles, current data available to students and families is “disjointed, unreliable, or completely unavailable.”

To help students become more enlightened consumers, the Young Invincibles have developed an app, “Here to Career,” for the California community college system. The program helps students match their interests with potential jobs likely to provide enough income for a decent living.

“What you study is as important as where you study,” said Allison. He noted that the pay gap between majors is wider than the gulf between those who graduated from college and those who did not.

A graduate with a degree in electrical engineering starts at an average income of nearly $63,000, according to the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State, while a graduate who majored in kindergarten and pre-school education begins at less than $36,000.

In the view of many professors and college administrators, however, there are dangers in relying on marketplace averages to drive student paths. They fear it diminishes an appreciation of the richness of education for its own sake.

Making a bet on a particular field can be treacherous, moreover, as disruptions in the economy render some jobs obsolete and create new pursuits not yet imagined. Most graduates, for that matter, do not work at jobs strictly related to their majors, according to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

When David Schejbal was in high school in the 1970s, his mother wanted him to be a physician. In college, he took some classes requisite for medical school, but ended up with a degree in philosophy.

He described the typical reaction to his choice of major: “What the hell are you going to do with that?”

Schejbal went into the field of college administration. Today he is the dean of continuing education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension, which offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees, as well as alternative credentials.

Students frequently ask him for advice about what major to choose. The underpinning of the question, he assumes, is what field of study will lead to prosperity.

“You should pursue the major you love,” he tells them. “I don’t know many people who do well at things they hate.”

His advice sometimes goes unheeded. He has seen many students choose a major because they believe it is hot in the job market, even if it’s not something they find particularly gratifying. Some of them eventually grow miserable with the chosen field and quit school, adding to the ranks of those who got little value from enrolling in college.


Dirk Johnson ([email protected]) is a former bureau chief for the New York Times and Newsweek. He is a senior adviser at Give Something Back, a mentoring and college scholarship program for students who face economic hardship and other adversities. Johnson is the co-author, with Robert Owen Carr, of Working Class to College: The Promise and Peril Facing Blue-Collar America (2016), which is distributed by the University of Illinois Press.