For Garrhs Inc. owner Travis Oliger, college wasn’t the right path. He went to college for a year before deciding to pursue a career in the trades working for his family company.
Now, both of his kids have made the same decision and found they are happy with the choice.
“They’re up to $30 an hour now, whereas their friends that went to college aren’t using their degree in a way that’s getting them a high-paying job,” Oliger said.
With more students failing to complete four-year degrees, educators have been expanding experiential learning opportunities, such as career and technical education classes and internships, to prepare them for future careers.
According to National Clearing House enrollment statistics, postsecondary enrollment fell to 16.2 million in spring 2022, marking a 4.1% decline, or 685,000 students.
Undergraduate enrollment accounted for most of the decline, dropping 4.7% in spring 2022, or more than 662,000 students, from spring 2021. As a result, the undergraduate student body is now 9.4% smaller than before the pandemic, or nearly 1.4 million students.
Kricket Lewis, career and technical education teacher at Durango High School, has witnessed the growing interest in CTE classes. She finds that students often enter college without knowing what they are passionate about. She said giving students the ability to have work-based experiences helps them realize their interests.
One of these fields of interest has been trade labor.
“We’ve been working with two groups – Homegrown Talent Initiative and Southwest Education Collaborative – to try and strengthen our community by providing these different pathways,” she said.
That has given students the ability to learn skills in welding and construction.
She said that is why the school district has emphasized experiential learning opportunities, so students can experience their field of interest.
A survey conducted by ECMC Group, a nonprofit that collects educational data, shows the likelihood of high school students earning a four-year degree decreased from 71% to 48% from 2020 to 2021.
The recurring issue with earning a four-year degree is student debt, especially if the student does not finish college.
“It’s costing families a lot of money for the students to figure it out, after they’re out of high school,” Lewis said.
Oliger is an advocate for youths learning trades. He finds some kids aren’t really interested in college. After leaving college, he joined his family’s heating and cooling business.
“There’s a monster push for kids to go to college and lots of them aren’t really cut out for it,” he said.
The trade industry has struggled to find labor in Durango, he said, but the shortage is sparking interest among younger generations to join the workforce instead of going to college because of increased wages, he said.
Both of Oliger’s boys skipped a four-year college degree to go to work for the family business. They were able to start working right away earning high wages and avoid student debt, he said.
But national statistics still suggest those with a college degree will earn more than those with only a high school diploma.
In 2020, those with a high school diploma earned a median income of $748 a week while those with a college degree earned a median income of $1,248 per week, according to reports from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
University of North Carolina law professor Kate Sablosky Ellengold conducted a study called “Was It Worth It: The Complexities and Contradiction in Assessing the Value of Higher Education.” The study interviewed various students to figure out how they assess higher education.
She said assessing the worth of a four-year degree is complicated. She contends that having the four-year degree creates better job opportunities, but the problem is students must obtain a number of extra credentials to obtain an entry-level position.
To compete in the current job market, those with an undergraduate degree may need a secondary degree or internship opportunities. That means students must devote more money to education. In her study, she found that many students did not feel the return on investment for college was worth it. However, students said they would not change their college experience because of the experiences they had while in college.
“You can’t just measure that economic return on investment,” she said. “You have to be thoughtful about what you’re measuring.”
Sablosky Ellengold finds internships to be problematic because most of them are not paid. That alienates a portion of students who can’t make the necessary time commitment for financial reasons.
“As our policymakers think about making college more accessible and affordable, I would like to see them think about making outside the curriculum opportunities available to people who might not have the means to pay for them,” Sablosky Ellengold said.
Return on investment varies based on a student’s degree, she said. Students could use the Georgetown ROI rankings to make higher education decisions based on earnings-debt return and earnings-price return.
“I personally think there is a risk in only looking at ROI,” she said. “Liberal arts education is a really valuable kind of education. Sometimes it takes a little bit longer to get to the employment, but it has value by helping people learn how to think, read, understand and analyze.”
Both Fort Lewis College and Durango School District 9-R have to tried to increase the number of internship and experiential learning opportunities so students can better their resumes.
Brett Polen, with the Career and Life Design Center at FLC, said he can see internships becoming integrated with graduation requirements in the future.
“Industries may see quick changes in technology or federal policies, and learning this information may be better suited through hands-on projects and internships instead of the classroom,” he said.
Classroom lectures are great for building a foundation of training and best-practices for a career, he said.
“I have seen situations where even with a degree, a candidate isn’t chosen because they don’t have the experience that would come with an internship or some type of experiential learning,” Polen said.
Durango School District 9-R has also been getting upperclassmen students involved with internships.Lewis said DHS has 100 juniors and seniors enrolled in internships.
Students call employers for informational interviews where they ask questions about job credentials, an average work day or how to start a business.
“There hasn’t been one intern that hasn’t gotten into a field of study they’re interested in, even if it means a remote internship,” Lewis said.
She added that some students are interested in starting businesses right out of high school and foregoing college, and access to experiential learning resources creates opportunities to find investors.