Rising tuition costs and the bleak job market raise questions about college’s worth as the only way to make it in the “real world.”

By Karina Grudnikov

After graduating from the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, Texas, Olivia Kaufman followed the same track as thousands of others: She went right to college, despite her sense that it wasn’t the right place for her. In 2006, she enrolled in St. John’s University at Queens, NY.  A year later, she dropped out.

“I went there and didn’t do well,” says Kaufman. “I’ve never been good at sitting down and doing homework.”

Kaufman, 23, returned to her parents’ home in Texas, where she enrolled in the University of Houston, in the hope that living with her parents would force her to focus on her studies. It didn’t. She left college again, only to attempt it one last time at a community college.  But there, the classes were too easy and Kaufman found herself gaining credits but little knowledge. She finally called it quits on school after three years at three different universities.

Like many who leave college, Kaufman worked a variety of jobs as she attempted to find her true calling. She first went into the Navy, from which she was shortly discharged due to medical reasons, and then worked at Starbucks. “I started to wonder what I was going to do with my life,” Kaufman said, “and if I’d spend my whole life being a barista, making $7.80 an hour.”  One day, her mother asked if she had ever considered becoming an emergency medical technician, or EMT.  Kaufman had been a lifeguard for several summers, and her mother knew she loved helping people. “I didn’t even think that would be an option without a college degree,” said Kaufman. But, as it turned out, there was a certificate program at Houston Community College where she could get her basic EMT certification. She enrolled in January 2010.

Four months and $1000 later, Kaufman was certified. “Thankfully, it was exactly what I needed,” she said. For someone who has always had difficulty learning only by reading and writing, Kaufman enjoyed the program’s mix of learning styles, including hands-on techniques. She has been an EMT for over a year now, and works two separate EMT jobs, a practice that Kaufman says is not unusual. She works for her local 911 emergency service, as well as with a private company that has contracts with local facilities, such as nursing homes. The workdays are tough – Kaufman works two 24-hour shifts and two or three 12-hour shifts weekly – but she loves her job. “It’s super rewarding,” she said. “There’s nothing better than stabilizing someone’s child after something devastating has happened.” And her salary doesn’t keep her living from paycheck to paycheck. “Now I can have a career that keeps me comfortable and not working extreme hours for little pay.”

Kaufman is not alone in discovering that college wasn’t the right place for her.  College enrollment in the U.S. continues to rise; there were 7.1 percent more enrolled students in fall 2009 than there were in fall 2008, reported the National Center for Education Statistics. Both public and private colleges have reported higher application and enrollment rates. Yet at the same time, graduation rates have remained stable and not the most impressive: only 56 percent of students who enroll in college end up earning their degree and graduating. With high student debt, high levels of unemployment and spiking tuition costs, many are reconsidering the value of a bachelor’s degree.

Alternative paths are beginning to emerge. Or rather, many of these options have been around, but have been overlooked in the cultural dialogue about life after high school and paths to adult success. A stigma has often shadowed individuals who choose not to go to college and earn a degree, and a large part of the college-dropout problem is that our society tends to overlook alternatives to a traditional four-year college program, and students and their families just don’t know enough about them.  For many students who don’t fit the traditional mode, college is where to go because alternatives are essentially unheard of, says Barbara Ray, author of “Not Quite Adults: Why Twenty-Somethings Are Taking a Slower Path to Adulthood and Why It’s Good for All of Us.” But for some, like Kaufman, getting another form of secondary education or certification, rather than a four-year bachelor’s degree, is the right path. For others, choosing to pursue other interests first and delaying education may be the answer. Some forge career paths inspired by childhood dreams that don’t require a traditional degree.

For a long time, society has pushed the idea that college is the only road to adult success. Like many parents, former New York Times editor Linda Lee sent her son to college in the late ‘90s, despite the fact that he struggled to do well in high school. Despite his academic difficulties, her son still thought he ought to go to college, and Lee sent him. “It was a disaster,” she said. “No one was around to tell me that he shouldn’t go to college, or that a bright kid might do something else and be just as well off.” Her son’s experience inspired her book, “Success Without College,” in which she attempts to debunk the myth that only college graduates can find good careers in the real world. Lee’s son dropped out of college and decided to pursue something that actually interested him – automotive mechanics – and now has a job making helicopter parts for the Defense Department. The only thing that he had gained from college, says Lee, “was meeting his future wife.”

It isn’t that success without college is completely unheard of. Neither Bill Gates nor Steve Jobs ever earned their degrees: Gates dropped out of Harvard University before his junior year, while Jobs left Reed College after just one semester. Decades later, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard University and became the world’s richest twenty-something after creating the Internet’s most successful social network. And while it is a well-known fact that these individuals never completed their college education, society doesn’t encourage leaving college for riskier endeavors. Zuckerberg’s success is the supposed exception to the rule: for the rest of his generation, for the individuals who are not rock stars or techies, the assumed path has always been college.

A key reason for college has long been the expected financial pay off. College graduates have always earned more than people without a degree: The College Board estimates that a college graduate will earn over 66 percent more than a high school graduate in forty years of work, or about $800,000 over a lifetime. However, the pay off doesn’t seem nearly as bright as it once may have been, due to a post-recession economy. A recent U.S. Department of Labor survey found that the unemployment rate for individuals between 20 to 24 years old is at a staggering 15.4 percent. Many students with loans are often unable to repay them, especially as jobs are still scarce. College tuition and student debt have been steadily rising over the past few years. According to the report, “Student Debt and the Class of 2009,” the average college senior in 2009 graduated with a debt of $24,000.

Kaufman knows that her path is the one less traveled, but she was lucky enough to figure out it out generally early and without getting herself into a debt. She didn’t leave college out of laziness; she just understood that she didn’t belong in the traditional college environment.  “I had ambition and drive, and wanted to have a successful career,” she said. “I just don’t learn well by only reading and writing.” And Kaufman is not the only young adult to be ambitious and yet not thrive in a classroom environment. “There are a lot of kids out there who are just not ready or able to go to school for four more years [after high-school],” says Barbara Ray. “For that group, they often get in to college because society says they have to but they have no plan or idea for what to do. So they flounder and struggle, and almost half drop out.” There’s no denying that you need more education after high-school for most careers, says Ray. But what hasn’t been taught enough is that a valuable secondary education (such as a certification program) is possible without going to college.

A successful career is far from impossible without a bachelor’s degree, but more has to be done to educate individuals about these careers. There seems to be a false dichotomy, Ray said, in which we “make it seem like you’re either getting a BA and well on your way to something big, or you’re in a dead end job with no options.” Life outside of college is not as limited as society often makes it appear. “Our society doesn’t elevate middle-tier jobs enough,” said Ray. “These are jobs that pay well and lead to a decent middle-class living, but they don’t take four more years of school to get.”  Many healthcare jobs, paralegal jobs, and even some manufacturing jobs, don’t require a bachelor’s degree but some form of training. But American teenagers just don’t seem to know enough about these options, and get shuffled off to college even if it isn’t the right place for them. What is needed, believes Ray, is to stop disrespecting alternative paths and start “put a value on those jobs like we do on engineering or business.”

A large problem is the stigma that often plagues individuals who choose to not go to college or get a traditional education or career. “That stigma is not beneficial, because people can do things they love, and that are useful to society, without going to college,” says Matthew Denhart, administrative director at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a not-for-profit research center based in Washington D.C. “We’re a nation that still needs the skills of plumbers and electricians and other careers that don’t require a degree.” It’s a mistake, says Denhart, to assume that college is the only path to the American dream.

Joe Lamacchia, author of “Blue Collar and Proud of It!” couldn’t agree more. Lamacchia, 51, never went to college and started his own landscaping business in the Boston area almost three decades ago. The book originally began as a website where Lamacchia wanted to voice his support for blue collar trades and workers. “It started several years ago when I couldn’t find a truck driver or cement mason for my company,” he said. “I felt like I was better off finding a brain surgeon.” Lamacchia hopes that the current economic recession will make people a little more hesitant about going to college and more willing to consider trades and other options that they may be better suited for. “The skill shortage is going to rear its ugly head,” he said. “Blue collar jobs are necessary – when the toilet clogs, look how fast people call the plumber!” And for some people like Lamacchia, trade jobs are the ones that they really feel most comfortable doing. “We have to see it, bang it, smash it, smell it,” he said. “We just can’t do desks and blackboards.”

But some individuals can do desks and blackboards – just not right away. Another misconception is that high-school graduates who don’t go to college are wasting time and avoiding adult responsibility. Sometimes delaying college is actually the adult thing to do. For Collin Boyle, 23, life after high school meant pursuing his dream of rock stardom. Boyle’s band, A Love Like Pi, was formed his sophomore year of high school. By the time graduation came around, the trio was ready to make it big. “It was a no-brainer,” Boyle said, about choosing music first. “We had acquired a fairly substantial following and were showcasing for major labels. I knew if we didn’t continue to tour and establish a name for ourselves nationwide, we might never regain momentum as a band.” School, Boyle thought, was something he could always return to later.

A Love Like Pi eventually signed with an indie record label, Thriving Records, and even played at major music festivals, such as The Bamboozle. Yet despite their local success, they never truly made it big like Boyle had hoped. “Unfortunately, as a result of poor business decisions and inner-band tensions, my band broke up and my dream of rock stardom was never recognized.” But even if he had known that his future wouldn’t turn out as glamorous as he had hoped, Boyle has no regrets. “I traveled the country with some of my best friends.  Even though my education was put on hold, the experience.”

Waiting several years also gave Boyle the chance to grow up and mature, making him more ready to commit to a college education. “Had I gone to college right out of high school, I would by no means be doing nearly as well as I am now,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a student when I was nineteen, but now, at twenty-three, I recognize and value the importance of a college education.” Now finishing up his associate’s degree at Brookdale Community College and with plans to attend Montclair State University in the fall, Boyle thinks he made the right decision about his future. “If I could go back,” he said, “I wouldn’t do it any other way.

Although Boyle didn’t achieve his goal, he isn’t the only young adult to attempt a career based on youthful dreams. After graduating from high school in 2008, Dani Sadowsky enrolled at the University of North Caroline at Asheville, but quickly found herself unhappy. “Ultimately, there was nothing I loved or wanted to study at college,” she said. “It wasn’t fulfilling.” In search of an alternative to school, Sadowksy, 20, thought back to her childhood passion: horses.  In June 2009, she flew into Steamboat, Colo. to start work on a ranch, a job she discovered through a cousin. At the ranch, she trained horses and helped to keep them in shape (“They get fat and lazy in the winter because of the severe weather!”).

Sadowsky loved working there, but not the lack of pay, and eventually had to quit in order to find a steady income. She got a job waiting tables at one of the restaurants at the bottom of Steamboat Mountain, which allows her a decent income and the ability to keep working with the horses. Her hope is to become a certified Sports & Therapy Equine Masseuse, a certification for which she has been taking classes at the Rocky Mountain School for Animal Acupressure and Massage. She will be fully certified after doing case studies on several horses, which she will fulfill while working at a new job in Virginia. With hard work and some luck, she hopes to make a successful career out of her passion – and her certification. “If I stick with it in Virginia, and people like me, I’ll be able to get my name out there and do my own massages for the surrounding area.”                                                                                                                        Whether one chooses college, certification program or risks it all to become a rock star or horse masseuse, perhaps it’s critical to remember that not knowing all the answers and taking the time to figure them out is an acceptable, and valuable choice. There is an overemphasis on following one clearly lit path to success, says Debra Humphreys, Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “Everyone is overly focused on being efficient as possible,” she said. “Not everyone finds their path on a straight line, sometimes you end up in place you need to be, but it takes several pathways to get there.” Barbara Ray agrees. “We expect young adults to have their lives in a neat, tidy package by the age of 25,” she said. “But even in middle age, we are still exploring options and figuring out our next move.” The most important tool for success may be acknowledging making mistakes and taking time to figure things out is necessary. Says Ray, “This is a life long pursuit of figuring out what it is you want to do and who you want to be.”