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What the American Dream could cost you

By May 4, 2012June 14th, 20169 Comments

College costs blog photoAsk anyone who graduated college in the last 20 years why they went to college, and they’ll repeat the message they were always given: College = job = American Dream.

But recent college graduates are quickly experiencing one of two things:

  1. There seems to be more college graduates than there are college-level jobs available. According to one analysis of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, 35 percent of the 49 million college graduates in the workforce have jobs that require less than a college degree. For example, 33 percent of flight attendants, 16 percent of bartenders, and 13 percent of waiters or waitresses are college graduates.
  2. Those lucky enough to have a college-level job have debilitating student loans. According to The Huffington Post, 2010 graduates left college with, on average, about $25,000 in student loans. But, in the same article, they interviewed a recent Ithaca College graduate, who earned a communications degree and also acquired $120,000 in school debt. She’s now an intern making $12.50 an hour.

So, while 40 years ago, the American dream was to graduate from high school, get a good job, and retire comfortably, and 20 years ago, the American Dream was to go to college, earn a degree (or two), get a good job (or two or three), and retire comfortably, the new American Dream could be somewhere in the middle.

Middle-skill jobs, that is. Two-year degrees, occupational licenses, and certifications are becoming more appealing to recent high school graduates. Two-year degree holders, especially in high-demand occupations, can earn salaries that surpass those of college graduates. For example, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce, the lifetime earnings of computer software engineers ($3million), aircraft mechanics ($2.3 million), and electricians ($2.1 million) all exceed the lifetime earnings of writers and editors ($2.0 million) and teachers ($1.8 million).

Two-year degree holders also graduate with a lot less student debt. According to the Institute of Education Sciences, the average tuition of a four-year degree in 2009–2010 was $20, 986 compared to $8,451 for two-year degree tuition.

With high unemployment rates and tuition costs for four-year degree holders and the opposite for two-year degree holders, what do we tell our current high school graduates about college?

For more information, read Bryan Goodwin’s article in Educational Leadership, “Don’t Overlook Middle-Skill Jobs.”

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Glen Taylor says:

    This infographic from The Consumerist explains the situation a little more emphatically.

  • Kalwin Kephas says:

    In the states are many industries, in the FSM you see limited industries; two year degrees, license, and certificates would help if those industries pay good salaries. The wages in the private sector is $1.50-$2.50. Someone has to steal to escape poverty level. If we trained our people in those mid level skills, where in the world would they compete for jobs?

  • TJC says:

    Is higher education, as it currently exists obsolete? I recently viewed the videos available from EPIC 2012, and have to admit that as a student loan co-signer for two children, I lose sleep over the debt we are incurring. Ironically, my oldest child just completed two years of technical school and has obtained employment as an electrical lineworker. His starting salary exceeds what most beginning teachers make.

  • Jim Clark says:

    Your article presents a clear picture of the inverse relationship between educational debt and our current job economy. I wonder if we need to began telling our young people about the American Dream by teaching them from high school on about the value of money and the cost of money, integrating the concepts of how money works for you (investing) and works against you (debt).

  • Your article provides the answers of the inverse connection between academic debt and our present job economic climate.

  • Jennifer Tuzzeo, McREL says:

    Here’s another infographic that shows the rise in cost over the last 12 years.

  • Good content, quite helpful, in addition to I love the idea.

  • It depends on the student and their goals. Some may want to pursue a two year degree while others may want to pursue a profession that may require a Bachelor or graduate degree.

  • i just learned something very important now. Thanks for this information…Your article provides the answers of the inverse connection between academic debt and our present job economic climate..

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