Recently, I was speaking with a former coworker who was concerned about a friend’s son. (For the sake of storytelling, I’m going to call him David.)

All through high school, David had his sights set on being a lineman for the power company. He could make a good salary, didn’t need a degree, and could start his career the summer after graduation. Unfortunately, after a couple of months on the job, David was let go. He was told he didn’t have the skills necessary to be a lineman.

Lacking any other career plans, David now wants to go to a 4-year liberal arts college where he will “just figure it out.” Idealistically, it’d be great for kids like David to be educated for education’s sake. But the reality is that you could waste 4 years—and a whole lot of money—by not having a plan before going to college.

Alternative Post-High School Options

Nowadays, there are more viable option than just the 4-year degree. Once considered substandard by some, associate degrees and career certificates offer great value by matching your intended career goals. Many of the toughest jobs to fill do not require bachelor degrees and pay more than the average starting salary of college graduates.

For example, getting a 4-year degree and then deciding to become an auto mechanic wouldn’t be ideal. On top of your previous bachelor’s degree, you’ll now need to attend an automotive mechanics program. That’s 6 years of education—when only 2 years were necessary. This equals a whole lot more paid (or borrowed) for your education.


Another reason you need a plan is that only 59 percent of students who enter a 4-year program complete their degrees within 6 years. This may be due to a number of reasons:

  • Being unprepared for college.
  • Life, work, and family getting in the way.
  • Changing majors or programs.
  • Generally having no career goal in mind.

Those who do not complete their degrees are almost three times more likely to default on their student loans—and those debt totals climb every year. For the class of 2016, the average student loan debt was $37,172,  which is the highest the average has ever been.

David’s Plan

For David, just attending a 4-year school doesn’t make sense until he has an idea of what he really wants to do. He should:

  • See if there are any related fields to what he originally wanted to do,
  • Evaluate what his natural talents and preferences are.
  • Research what his next steps should be to pursue any of the careers or skills he comes up with.

After performing this evaluation, David may find that a 4-year degree is the right move. If so, he should absolutely pursue that degree. However, he might also find that a 2-year, certificate, or trade school may be the better option for him. He won’t know unless he plans ahead.

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