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Education: Is a Four-Year Degree Worth It?

By Amritha Alladi Joseph Email By Amritha Alladi Joseph
April 2024
Education: Is a Four-Year Degree Worth It?

For most Asian Americans, going to college is a no-brainer. But some high school graduates are foregoing traditional bachelor’s degrees to gain hands-on skills and start earning sooner. Are they missing out on the multidisciplinary approach of universities and a solid education that’s not just about learning employable skills and landing a job?

If you strip away the football games, engaging debates with professors, Greek parties, and sharing of ideas with peers, what’s left of a college education? Not a lot for some people.

Much of the recent debate around race-conscious college admissions has centered on the challenge raised by Students for Fair Admissions, who argued that elite institutions discriminate against Asian Americans based on subjective traits and by holding Asians to higher quantitative qualification metrics. In the past, race-conscious admissions were justified by the need to create diverse learning environments on campus, but some argue that race is not the means for promoting diversity at the college level.

Asian Americans, especially from lower income families, may sometimes feel that the recent debate largely ignored the sentiments of those who pursue other paths, such as community colleges. In California, which has the highest Asian American population, 41% of AAPI students start as freshmen at community colleges, according to a May 2022 report by the Campaign for College Opportunity. Across the country, the U.S. Department of Education has noticed a steeper trend in AAPI enrollment in public two-year colleges compared to four-year institutions, and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported last year that enrollment among Asian American students, specifically, saw the greatest jump (+6.6%) in freshman two-year college enrollment compared to other demographic groups.

Champ Liudi, an Indonesian American student, told NBC News that he opposes affirmative action policies as it could lead to “generalizing” of Asian Americans, and it doesn’t address the problem of “generational poverty.” An admissions policy based on income would make more sense to Liudi. “Low-income households would likely not have the privilege to achieve high scores or do extracurriculars in school due to being unable to afford tuition or provide time other than working or providing for families,” he added.

Affordability is a primary consideration when families of high school students consider the path forward. A 2023 poll by The Wall Street Journal and the University of Chicago found that 56% of U.S. adults believe that a four-year college education is “not worth the cost” while just 42% believe that it is. College enrollment among young Americans has indeed been declining gradually over the past decade. In 2022, the total number of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college was down by approximately 1.2 million from its peak in 2011. Most of the decline is because fewer men are attending college for various reasons, per data from the Pew Research Center. Plus, with the proliferation of the gig economy, corporate apprenticeships, and plethora of online and technical resources available outside the university campus, the opportunity to gain more hands-on, practical experience while making a living sooner has been more enticing for some young people.

Pursuing an alternative path

Education_2_04_24.jpgThere are certainly other paths that can be taken to reach success, according to Denver-based Francis Vithayathil, a senior development engineer for Aetna. He understands the sentiments of today’s high school graduates who are eager to start earning. “College is expensive. Half the cost is living expenses, so every extra year that you put into going to university is that much more money,” he says.

Vithayathil dropped out of the University of Central Florida in 2016 to become a computer programmer and web developer. Although he had already racked up several general education credits from the IB and AP courses he had taken in high school, he was still forced to take physics and math-related classes for which he had no interest. “I found math was pretty difficult. I wasn’t particularly focused on trying to get a degree, but mostly having fun,” he admits.

He dropped out, although he struggled to persuade his parents to help him get a loan to attend a coding bootcamp, hosted by Austin tech startup MakerSquare and with a price tag of roughly $16,000. The draw? MakerSquare had a 95-98% hiring rate within three months. It was also the most affordable.

[Right] Francis Vithayathil

Vithayathil found it difficult to convince his parents of his choice to forego a traditional college route. It strained his relationship with them, but he felt it was ultimately his decision. “My mom was pretty against it. My dad was more open to it. He was the one who helped me get the loan, but they were always disappointed,” he said. 

Once he convinced them, Vithayathil had to prepare for his application. He taught himself to code using Code Academy online resources, books, and hours of practice. Moving to Austin, he attended the bootcamp six days a week from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. He was focused, experiencing the same rigor as all his peers who were in the same boat. In a few months, he secured a job, and ultimately felt he had more efficiently reached the career goals which he had set for himself. It took him four months to find a job, a contract position with Wilmer Technologies in Tallahassee, Florida.

Vithayatil feels it was a path worth taking. “People use the college degree to weed people out. The only way out of that is by having significant projects under your belt to show you are capable,” he says. His bootcamp training helped him achieve that, as it forced him to focus on an application of knowledge for 8+ hours a day. An immersive experience was important.

“College is kind of scattered and your attention is divided. What I liked about the bootcamp is that I learned a lot. I didn’t think it was a waste of time. Time is money. It’s one of those things I could do quickly to get a decent salary in something I was more interested in doing.” He managed to get a job a year after he started the process of learning, which is pretty fast. Tech, specifically web and app development, is unique in that you can get an astounding salary without getting a college degree. “That’s one of the advantages that I had,” he adds.

He wishes other fields outside of tech would also be more open to offering young job seekers alternative routes to developing skills and gaining employment. “I’d like to see other industries adopt the same kind of process that tech has followed, allowing other avenues for people to progress in a career where college isn’t the main path.”

What’s a college degree worth?

Education_3_04_24.jpgRick Clark, Director of Admissions at Georgia Tech, says he’s encouraged to see that other paths have popped up, but he still sees the value in a four-year college education. So far, young people’s interest in joining the workforce hasn’t taken a toll on college admissions.

University education counts for something: The wage gap for people with bachelor’s degrees versus those without has been widening. In 2023, recent college grads ages 22-27 working full-time earned $24,000 more per year than 22–27-year-olds with only a high school degree, per the most recent data released by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Compare that to the figure in 1990, when the gap was $15,000.

[Left] Rick Clark, Georgia Tech

Combining formal college education with hands-on training through internships is the ideal combination, and one that Clark has noticed more students pursuing. “There is still value in education beyond high school, potentially coupled with real world experience too,” Clark notes. “You’re seeing a differential with the comp to the degree 10-15%. That’s the difference between high five figures and low six figures.” ​

Given the vast alumni network, community partnerships and connections that colleges have, they are able to help students access internships and co-ops; students will only benefit if they are proactive and take advantage of the college’s connections. Paid internships can help students pay some of their way through college, while also offering networking opportunities to land a full-time job.

Beyond the financial impact, college gives you access to a community—whether it’s your network of peers, or the connections made through professors. “That stays with you all through your life,” Clark says, noting that several new graduates who recently entered the workforce have come back to the university to hire interns or the next batch of recent grads.

After having worked for a few years as a web developer now, Vithayathil agrees there is some value to college, and he is considering going back himself. “I’m at a point now where I feel I’ve gotten so good, there’s nothing new to learn or interesting to me,” he said. He would now like to use college to find something else that may interest him, and he feels college could be useful in helping people decide what field they want to pursue if they don’t already know.

Using college to explore other interests or fields is one of the benefits of a four-year degree, according to Clark. The conversations that one has with one’s peers and professors is invaluable in testing your assumptions, opening your mind, helping you see the bigger picture. “It cultivates the mentality and skills to be a lifelong learner at a young age of 17-18 years old, putting you in a situation where you’re forced to think differently,” Clark points out.

He’s optimistic at the possibilities that will unfold in a hybrid education model, and he has already started to see a shift in dynamics with public-private sector partnerships. “It’s going to be different,” he declares.

Amritha Alladi Joseph, a former reporter for Gannett newspapers, The Hindu, The Gainesville Sun, Gainesville Magazine, and CNN-IBN, is now a customer success strategist at Salesforce She lives in Sandy Springs, Georgia, with her husband and two children.

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