The ultimate price of the average bachelor’s degree may be as high as $400,000 in the United States, taking into account lost income and loan interest, according to the Education Data Initiative.

More than half of older millennials with student loan debt, surveyed last year by the Harris Poll, said their loans weren’t worth it. Some 1,000 U.S. college graduates ages 33 to 40 participated in the survey.

The average student loan debt in New Hampshire among members of the class of 2020 was nearly $40,000, according to The Institute for College Access & Success. To pay off the loan over 10 years at an interest rate of 3.73 percent would require installments of about $400 per month. Imagine adding that amount to the growing tally of other monthly expenses: housing, utilities, food and transportation.

Crushing debt has caused many to rethink college. Philosophically, few would question the merits of a college education. But in terms of sheer return on investment, some students and their parents wonder if a bachelor’s degree that can cost $100,000 at a public four-year institution or top $200,000 at a private four-year institution is worth it.

The “college for everyone” push is misguided. Unintentionally, perhaps, it has stigmatized the trades and resulted in hand-wringing over the current shortage of skilled labor.

While statistics show that over a lifetime of work those with college degrees, in the aggregate, earn more than those without, individual cases vary. Higher wage earners in STEM fields often skew the results, and where you live makes a difference in how much you earn. According to ZipRecruiter, jobs in New Hampshire requiring a bachelor’s degree pay an average salary of about $53,000. By comparison, trade jobs in the state pay an average of $57,000

The shift in thinking about higher education is likely driving the current boom in skilled-trades programs, as reported by NPR this week.

For some students, graduating from a skilled-trades program could mean landing a decent-paying job without taking on too much debt and launching a career that satisfies a craving for hands-on work. Pursuing a skilled trade doesn’t necessarily shut the door on later college education. More than 6 million college students in this country are 25 or older, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

A growing number of workers without a bachelor’s degree are out-earning their four-year college peers, according to a study released in October by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. While 22 percent of workers earning from $30,000 to $60,000 have a bachelor’s degree, 27 percent possess only a high school diploma, a Georgetown analysis showed.

Air traffic controllers, construction inspectors, respiratory therapists and cardiovascular technicians all earn more than, or about the same as, the median bachelor’s degree holder.

Locally, career-technical education is thriving at Fall Mountain Regional High School, according to a recent Claremont Eagle Times report. Some five years after the school district established its own vocational education center, the program has grown from a single offering in agriculture and animal science to six, including horticulture, natural resources, digital design, Junior ROTC — which provides scholarships for college education in return for military service — and, beginning in the fall, “business in health care,” which leads to a certificate in medical administrative assistance.

Agriculture, by the way, experienced the greatest percentage change in community college enrollment throughout the country from 2019 to 2021 at 38 percent, according to the NPR report.

The N.H. Rural Makers Alliance — a new collaborative of colleges, makerspaces, business incubators, local governments and planning organizations in Cheshire, Grafton and Sullivan counties — aims to build a new, 21st-century workforce, in part by attracting younger generations with interest in creative, hands-on and technology-driven employment, the Claremont Eagle Times reported last week.

Despite the surge in interest in trades education, the federal government invests only $1 on career training for every $6 it spends on college prep, according to Stephen Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America, which sees investing in skilled-trades programs as crucial for addressing the shortage of qualified workers, according to the NPR report.

One of the fastest-growing employment fields, as projected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, is wind turbine service technician, which pays a median salary of $56,230.

While the goal of making college affordable to all is laudable, advising all students that they “need to go to college” is not. College is just one path of several that can lead to gainful employment and a satisfying career.

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