Many economists, employers and academics tell us that our post-secondary education system is churning out too many four-year graduates. For decades, many parents, teachers and school counselors have been stuck in the mindset that four-year colleges are the best pathway for high school graduates to initiate a successful career. Many in our society think of it as the only smart choice, while students have been traditionally made to feel “less-than” by peers, teachers and others, if they choose an apprenticeship in the skilled trades.
Parents, worried about the perceptions of others, feel a sense of humility if their sons and daughters choose a pathway other than college; as if they themselves could be perceived as failures. There’s a stigma attached to the skilled trades; a stereotype that those who go into the skilled trades are not college material, even though many apprentices have four-year degrees.
The good news is that market forces are beginning to change this perception. The high number of college graduates is creating an oversupply of grads who find that their degrees do not align very well with the jobs available in the economy. There is also huge demand for skilled professionals. This has resulted in the skills gap.
The latest numbers out this week from SmartAsset.com show the highest average salary for new four-year college graduates in Wisconsin is roughly $65,000. Graduates of the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) take the honor, with Marquette University grads following at $56,400 and UW-Platteville at $56,000. UW-Madison is next at $55,700 and UW-Eau Claire is fifth highest at $51,100.
Unfortunately, salaries are not the only variable to consider with this investment. Student tuition at MSOE and Marquette is roughly $38,000 each year with another $12,000 to $15,000, respectively, in student living costs for an annual bill of $50,000 to $53,000. The annual bill at UW-Platteville is a more modest $19,000; UW-Madison is roughly $25,000; and UW-Eau Claire is nearly $20,000. Some students receive scholarships and grants, of course, but the average student loan debt for a 2017-18 graduate in Wisconsin was nearly $32,000. According to CollegeInsight.com, a 15-year payment plan at a conservative 4.5% interest rate results in a monthly payment of $245 for 15 years, with more than $12,000 in interest. The financial gain is certainly not what it once was.
Many parents and students, meanwhile, are surprised to hear that the median starting salary for graduating apprentices in Wisconsin is more than $77,000, with several construction trades even higher, according to the Wisconsin Technical College System 2016-17 Apprenticeship Completion Report. Tuition in the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) of Wisconsin Apprenticeship program is about $2,000 each year, which includes books and administrative fees. If you consider most apprentices don’t have to relocate for school, the entire education has a low-price tag of $6,000 to $10,000, with many employers paying the tuition. With the skilled trades in such demand, these wages are only expected to grow.
Also consider that unlike four-year college students, apprentices are paid while they’re in school and progressively earn more each year of their three- to five-year programs. Apprentices graduate with essentially no education-related debt and many are able to secure home ownership and build cash reserves while in school. Many apprentices also progress into management positions and many even start their own companies.
Certainly, it’s not all about the money, but career passion and payback should be considered to avoid the one-pathway mentality. Securing a college degree without a mountain of debt is becoming impossible for many individuals. As more parents and students begin to question the wisdom of the college investment and look more openly at alternatives like apprenticeship, they can be confident they are making a smart choice.
Kyle Schwarm, MS, ABC, is the marketing and communications director at ABC of Wisconsin.