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Shift in values: High school grads flock to trade schools as confidence in traditional degrees wanes

A Pew Research finding shows only 1 in 4 American adults believe having a college degree is "extremely or very important."
An instructor teaching a student during an auto collision repair class
Posted at 11:43 AM, Jun 17, 2024

Skyrocketing college tuition prices are hitting Americans hard — and with students at some private universities, like Vanderbilt, now facing tuition of around $100,000 per year, it may have many people wondering if a four-year degree is worth it.

John Cherkauer is in his third semester at Ranken Technical College in St. Louis, Missouri. A former high school football standout, Cherkauer says he turned down college football opportunities.

"I didn't think college was worth it," Cherkauer said, "Most colleges, they're like, they're not going to sell the job. Why spend four years taking a bunch of the classes when I can go in two years, have a whole job already set up and make more money in less time?"

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate enrollment grew 2.5% in Spring of 2024 compared to the previous year. However, research shows most of the increase is from community college growth.

Don Pohl, the president of Ranken Technical College, says he knows first-hand that not everyone wants or needs a typical college experience.

"Growing up I decided I wanted to get into the technical careers. So, came here, was a student, I graduated and ended up getting a real job."

After working in the computer industry, Pohl came back to Ranken to first teach, then lead.

Many students at the school say they share the same sentiments as both Pohl and Cherkauer, relating to the need to work with their hands and the value of getting into the workforce without the debt of a traditional degree.

A student works during welding class.

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"98% of our graduates are working within six months within their chosen technical career field," Pohl added.

A Pew Research finding shows only 1 in 4 American adults believe having a college degree is "extremely or very important.". It also says that roughly half of those people say it's less important to have a four-year college degree today in order to get a well-paying job than it was 20 years ago.

Richard Fry, one of the authors of the research, says as long as the economy holds where it is now, skilled trades should be safe. "Now, we have 4% unemployment. That's, you know, nationally, that's a pretty tight labor market. Employers have had to raise wages in order to attract workers, you know, if we continue in that vein. Yes, I think that creates a good opportunity for technical colleges and you know sort of skilled trades," said Fry.

However, he says be leery of another recession: "The Great Recession officially ended in 2009, but labor-market-wise, it took years to recover. So, it really wasn't around again till about 2014 that things really started to look up for less educated young adults."

As for Cherkauer, he is confident that with his education and experience he will thrive in a field that is always in demand.

"I think going to a trade school especially like Ranken, they get you set up with a career in the trades, are always going to be needed. There is always going to be someone to work on cars, do plumbing, construction, anything with trades really," Cherkauer said.