The question of how much a college education really matters in the workplace has often been swept aside by the impassioned arguments of professors, government officials and other wise adults who maintain that a traditional liberal arts education is every student’s best shot at success. Simultaneously, many college students and recent graduates become frustrated when they gain employment and learn that much of their coursework is irrelevant to everyday work life.

Keeping erudite subjects such as calculus or ancient history in mind, the question then becomes, what makes a university educated student different from one with only a high school diploma or GED, and how much is that difference worth?

Austere pro-college groups start with an economic argument. Over a lifetime of labor, college graduates make a return of about 12 percent on the investment of a four-year education, they point out. That’s true even when you take into account the years spent studying instead of working, according to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The same study found that student ability has declined as enrollment rates in four-year schools have increased, and that around 600,000 students a year quit college before graduating. Those students fare less well economically than workers who hold bachelor degrees. However, the dropouts still have to pay tens of thousands in student loan debt. State universities and some private schools have been coping with this dropout factor for years. It’s also becoming an issue among those seeking online education degrees.

Increasingly, the gap between workers who come to the table just out of high school and those who spend years earning bachelor’s degrees is being narrowed by vocational schooling, two-year colleges and online degree programs that specialize in quick completion times for working adults. Higher education courses are available in-person and online throughout the U.S.

Certifications and training that come from these nontraditional schools can be a great solution for students with more passion for a craft than a burning desire to become lifelong learners. And it extends beyond the fact that jobs such as plumbing or hairdressing can’t be outsourced. Instead, recognize that this type of post-secondary education makes for a community where each individual can pursue his or her passion to the utmost. This training vs. educating model is true even for jobs that require heavy-duty interaction with computers. There will always be people interested in the philosophical questions of modern technology or the meaning of Shakespearean sonnets, and universities should always be available to them. However, that kind of academic experience will probably be lost on students who yearn for the immediacy of firing pistons or baking gourmet desserts.

The next major ivory tower theory made by four-year university proponents is that the college experience isn’t as much about what students learn at school as it is proof that they can responsibly complete vigorous intellectual programs. It’s the hackneyed “jumping through hoops” argument. Upon close examination, though, nontraditional learning opportunities offer a better answer for many students. Young adults can prove their ability to complete tasks relevant to their futures just as well as they can prove that ability by memorizing the table of elements or the location of tectonic plates. For example, imagine a young woman with a passion for cutesy cupcakes. Her successful small business organized around culinary artwork is far better proof of her ability to follow through than her grade on an introductory literary course would be.

The national paradigm concerning post-secondary education is already changing to one based on appreciating skill rather than admiring raw academic talent, as manifested by changing rules for federal student loans. High schools are also changing by improving programs for occupational training and sending students to community colleges or technology colleges.

Recognize that depending on your interests and abilities, the time and financial investment of a traditional college education may be unwise. As American philosopher Henry David Thoreau put it way back in the 19th century, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you have imagined.”

If you found the previous article informative, you should check out more in our distance education section, or read some of these articles below:

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