Alternative Paths to College Education: First Learn a Job

By William B. Conerly, Ph.D.

The old advice about college isn’t working anymore. College graduates (as well as “quituates”) face poor job prospects in many cases, as well as high student debt. A college degree is not the meal ticket it once was, especially unfortunate at the time when loans have to be paid off. Young men and women need to consider an alternate path.

I wrote an article for Forbes that got a great deal of attention: “The Six Courses That Will Make Any College Grad Employable.” That advice is still right for a student in college, but let’s address the younger person: Maybe you should not go to college right away.

University professor and social critic Camille Paglia made some very pointed comments about college in a recent Reason TV interview. (The entire interview is long and somewhat rambling, but Paglia makes strong points about the weakness of the current higher education model.) She said that young people need to learn how to make a living.

An alternative model is to get job skills first, then head to college for a broader perspective on the world through science, history, and literature. Here’s how that might work.

There are many jobs that pay decent money with just a little training. The health professions have many, such as phlebotomist (the person who draws blood for tests). Many computer-related jobs can be had with a year or two of applied schooling, or even disciplined self-study. Local community colleges have counselors who are familiar with training requirements for different jobs. The construction trades have apprenticeships with a three-to-five-year path of paid work plus free training, ending in journeyman certification in a trade. Instead of getting out of college with debt, the apprentice ends with no debt, work experience, and a job.

My parents feared that if I didn’t go to college straight from high school, I’d never go, or at least never finish. My father got two years of college under his belt before military service in World War II. When the war was over, he had a wife and family and never went back to school. He didn’t want that to happen to me or my siblings. However, back in the 1950s a college degree was a meal ticket. To acquire one, the student needed some combination of brains, ambition, and family connections, all relevant to career success. There were so few college grads that to have a degree was very distinctive. Today, degrees are much more common and thus mean much less.

Even the most talented high school students should consider going out on their own before heading to college. My parents ran into financial difficulties just as I was finishing high school, and I received no money from them. I probably had a better relationship with them than any of my classmates had with their parents. The difference was that I could do as I pleased, but I sought their counsel and advice. They acknowledged that they had no say-so, because they were not footing the bills. We got along quite well in my college years.

I was very motivated to study economics and make a career in the field, but many others go to college without such a clear goal. College is simply too expensive, though, for a find-yourself experience. You can find yourself with positive cash flow working a job.

After the young person has a starting job, it’s time to think about education. It’s not easy to work full time and go to school part-time, but plenty of people do it. Starting a family later in life helps. Learning a construction trade makes a lot of sense for an 18-year-old. Working in hard labor makes less sense 30 years later. Before the body objects to carrying heavy loads, it’s time to transition to carrying a clipboard. More schooling gets the tradesman into management, estimating, or sales.

“Follow your passion” is common advice, but often dangerous advice. If your passion is finance or computer programming, I heartily agree. One can make a good living while having fun. If, however, your passion is Roman history, it’s going to be very tough. The solution is to find a way to earn a living while keeping your passion as a hobby. I know people who work full time and paint in their spare time. One guy, whom I’ve written about regarding business models in art, is transitioning from art-as-a-hobby to art-as-a-profession. He is making the transition with both money in the bank and a good head for business, which help tremendously to succeed as an artist.

A technical writer I once worked with quit her corporate job to wait tables in a restaurant. I was mystified, but she explained that the job had been great for producing volumes of boring text, which helped her write clear prose. But it was time for her to pursue her passion of writing fiction, the next great American novel. She needed to make money, but have more time for her own writing. She also needed a job that was less intellectually challenging, so that she could go home to a pretty cerebral activity. Waiting tables fit the bill. It has a fairly high hourly rate, but bad hours and part-time work. Jobs like this work well for people trying to balance passion and money.

One final way to look at college uses an economist’s approach. Some purchases are consumer goods, motivated by pleasure. Think movies, party dresses, vacations. Other purchases are investment goods. For a company, this includes factory equipment, trucks, or office buildings. For a family, an investment might be a washing machine (avoiding putting quarters in a laundromat), a basic car (to get to work in), or a house (to avoid paying rent). Borrowing money for an investment can be okay, but borrowing for a pure consumption good is not smart. Now, what is college? A person majoring in engineering is buying an investment good. A person studying Russian literature is buying a consumption good. Borrowing for a pure consumption good does not make sense.

This advice is doubly important for the poorly performing student. College requires even more self-discipline than high school. Unless there is a major change, the poor high school student becomes not a college graduate but rather a flunktuate.

College is great for some people just out of high school, and great at a later time for others, and a very bad idea for yet others. Every high school student should consider work options before embarking on an expensive college experience.


William B. Conerly, Ph.D. is the principal of Conerly Consulting, an economic and financial consulting firm, and chairman of the board of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market research center. A version of this article was originally published on

More Tax Dollars for College ― Or Prepare Students to Succeed There?

Oregon voters are being asked this November to authorize spending more tax dollars to help some students afford an arguably unaffordable higher education. Measure 86 will create a permanent fund to subsidize certain students, which can be financed several ways including through state general obligation bonds. Any bonds issued under the so-called Oregon Opportunity Initiative will have to be paid off over 30 years, primarily by income tax payers, not by students. Only the earnings on bond proceeds and other funds will be available for subsidies.

There are several problems with this proposal:

First, Measure 86 does nothing to reduce the overall cost of higher education in Oregon. In fact, it actually could increase those costs as more taxpayer dollars flow into the system.

Second, even if the measure does help some students afford college, we don’t know if they will be prepared to succeed there, or if they will need costly and time-consuming remedial courses to learn what they should have learned in high school.

Our educational leaders in Salem anticipated the need to prepare students better for college years ago, and they took steps that they hoped would address the issue. In 2007 the state Board of Education adopted The Oregon Diploma, which was intended to ensure that students are prepared to enroll in postsecondary education without the need for remedial courses.

The Oregon Diploma “…requirements are designed to better prepare each student for success in college, work, and citizenship. To earn a diploma, students will need to successfully complete the credit requirements, demonstrate proficiency in the Essential Skills, and meet the personalized learning requirements…A phase-in schedule (2007 – 2014) has been created to allow students, families, schools and teachers to adequately prepare to meet these new requirements.”

Apparently assuming that The Oregon Diploma would get all students college-ready by 2014, Governor John Kitzhaber recommended, and the Legislature adopted in 2011, what has come to be known as Oregon’s 40-40-20 educational attainment goal. By 2025, this state policy aims for 40 percent of Oregonians to have a four-year baccalaureate degree or higher, 40 percent to have an associate’s degree or certificate in a skilled occupation, and the remaining 20 percent to have at least a “college and career-ready” high school diploma or its equivalent.

So, how are we doing in getting to that 40-40-20 goal by 2025? Three national reports issued over the last two months raise serious questions as to whether most Oregon high school graduates are coming anywhere close to being “college and career-ready.”

First we learned that only 30 percent of Oregon’s 2014 high school graduates are deemed “college ready” based on their American College Testing Organization (ACT) college admissions examinations in all four tested subjects of English, Reading, Math, and Science.

Then, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce report revealed that “Oregon is one of the very worst states when it comes to preparing students for college and the work force.” It noted that “Oregon ranks in the bottom 10 when it comes to getting students ready for college and careers.” We earned a grade of “D” in Academic Achievement and an “F” in Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness.

Finally, we found out that only 46 percent of Oregon public high school students who took the SAT college entrance tests scored high enough to demonstrate that they are prepared for college.

So, it looks like Oregon has struck out three times when it comes to meeting The Oregon Diploma goal of better preparing each student for “success in college, work, and citizenship” by 2014. We have eleven more years to see if the Governor’s 40-40-20 goal pans out, but it isn’t looking good so far.

Before we encourage more taxpayer spending on higher education through Measure 86, shouldn’t we find ways for our public school system to prepare most college-bound students to actually succeed there?

As I’ve noted before, that won’t take more money, because research shows that spending more money doesn’t lead to better educational outcomes; it just rewards the adults who get paid by the system. Instead, we should take the top-down control away from bureaucrats in Salem and give it to parents and students through a genuine system of school choice. Then watch our college readiness numbers climb. Otherwise, we’re just paying twice for remedial courses to teach college students what they should have learned in high school.

Removing the need for those remedial courses could help more students than Measure 86 ever would, and it should help Oregon taxpayers by reducing the cost and the time it takes to educate college students.

Steve Buckstein is Founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Dissing Online Education

One can imagine that blacksmiths and buggy whip makers didn’t take kindly to the automobile revolution that started in the late 19th century. Those at risk of losing their horse-related jobs likely made the case for resisting the new, glitchy, and dangerous metal machines. We all know how that rivalry turned out.

Today, another revolution is beginning. Just as thousands of years of horse travel were largely replaced within a few decades, one wonders what the future of physical classroom education might be in the face of the online education revolution.

A Portland State University professor of educational leadership recently authored an op-ed making the case that “effective teaching practices such as class discussion, relational learning and other activities of the traditional classroom are hard to offer on a computer screen.” That might be true; face-to-face educational interactions may never go away, but soon they could be greatly supplemented or even overshadowed by online innovation.

The future is always daunting to those at risk of being displaced, but the future is coming and we will find ways to adapt to it and even improve upon it. Buggy whips may be a thing of the past, but there are still plenty of jobs for people who know how to make and care for our modern horseless carriages.

Is There a More Flexible Way for Students to Invest in Themselves?

By Joel Grey

State Treasurer Ted Wheeler has proposed a new program intended to help Oregon students go to college in spite of the quickly ballooning cost of tuition. Under the proposed “Oregon Opportunity Initiative,” the state of Oregon could borrow money by selling general obligation bonds and then invest the proceeds. Students could receive grants or other subsidies from the earnings on this investment each year, while taxpayers would be responsible for paying back the bonds. The state must use all discretionary spending necessary to pay back bondholders with interest over thirty years. Bonds issued for this purpose likely would reduce the opportunity to bond for other critical needs of the state such as roads and bridges.

This proposal is potentially a costly mistake for Oregon and fails to prevent the inflated cost of education from growing even faster.

Even with the increased cost of college, higher education can still be a good investment for individual students. People with bachelor’s degrees likely will see their incomes increase by more than the cost of attendance over their careers. Because of this, it is unwise to eliminate part of the cost to the student by having taxpayers help fund their education. Students should pay for their own education, even if they are not paying at the time they are enrolled.

If the cost of college to the student is reduced, it creates a third-party payer problem: Because they are not directly affected by cost increases, students will worry less about the price of college, allowing it to inflate more over time. Conversely, if students are expected to pay for their education, they are more cautious about expenses and debt.

Even traditional loans have a third-party payer problem because costs are externalized to the future. Students have to pay eventually, but they don’t necessarily fully consider this because it is a long-term issue. While traditional loans lead to problematic student debt, there are other ways of financing education that don’t lead to third-party payer problems.

One viable solution to student debt was proposed almost sixty years ago by Milton Friedman: human capital contracts. A private person or institution, such as a bank or investment firm, pays for a student’s education. In exchange, the student pays a fixed percentage of income over a certain period of time. Human capital contracts would be more flexible than traditional loans. As a percentage of income rather than a fixed dollar amount, they would be less likely to be financially burdensome to the borrower and would thereby lower the rate of default.

Human capital contracts are also more flexible for the lender. Current federal loans treat all students equally in rates and borrowing limits. Private institutions could offer lower or higher rates based on an individual student’s career path or academic performance, allowing certain students to receive lower rates while riskier students are given higher rates.

Human capital contracts are likely to benefit lower-income students the most. It is very unlikely that those students could afford to pay for college up front, but they would have the same earning potential as anyone else in their field upon graduating. Human capital contracts would allow them to use these future earnings to make college attainable in the present.

While human capital contracts are also a third-party payer system, the private nature of the funding gives lenders an incentive to control their costs. They will need to ensure that students can pay back what they borrowed. The federal government doesn’t have the same incentive with its student loans because it doesn’t need to earn a profit.

Human capital contracts are not a silver bullet; nothing is. For example, they likely wouldn’t be useful for students who only intend to work part time or to become stay-at-home parents because lenders couldn’t recoup their investments. However, human capital contracts are a better choice overall for students and Oregonians when compared with the taxpayer-funded Oregon Opportunity Initiative. They would eliminate many problems of current loans, provide an incentive to view education as an investment, and control costs. All of this would help manage the expense of college long-term while still allowing students from any income bracket to attend college.

Joel Grey is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Private Lenders Could “Pay-It-Forward” in Oregon

By Everet Rummel

The Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission is proposing a pilot program called “Pay-It-Forward.” Oregon residents could attend an in-state public university or community college tuition-free in exchange for paying a portion of their income annually for 20 years after graduation. The program, set to cover 1,000 students, is projected to cost the state between $5 million and $20 million per year for the next 20 years before becoming self-sustaining.

Proponents of “Pay-It-Forward” want to alleviate the problem of overwhelming student debt loads and make a college education more affordable. But should taxpayers cover students’ tuition when they are already directly funding public universities and student aid programs? Instead of microscopic pilot programs that throw more public money at the problem of rapidly rising tuition, there is a potential private solution to help finance higher education.

Milton Friedman originally proposed the concept of human capital contracts (HCCs) for the purpose of financing higher education. HCCs are privately funded financial instruments through which students receive funding for their tuition. In exchange, they pledge to pay a set percentage of their income annually for a set period of time after graduation. If they are ever unemployed or unable to pay, then they pay nothing until they have an income. If the payback period ends before the student has paid back the entirety of the sum loaned, the rest of the debt is forgiven. HCCs would go far beyond publicly funded “Pay-It-Forward”-type programs and traditional student loans by incentivizing informed educational decisions, forcing institutions to compete by controlling costs, and transferring financial risk to those who are better able to bear it.

HCC rates, the percentage of income that students must pay annually, and funds loaned would vary by the school attended, program of study, and academic achievement. Students attending schools and programs whose graduates tend to do poorly in the labor market would face lower rates but fewer funds. Students with lower academic achievement may have access to less funding. Those attending more expensive schools would receive more funds and higher rates only if their expected earnings are high relative to the costs of the education. Thus, rates and funds would incentivize students to seek more bang for their buck. Institutions, no longer reliant on seemingly unlimited government (taxpayer-funded) aid, would have to rein in costs and focus on improving academic quality. In sum, the availability of HCCs alone would tell consumers a lot about the economic value of various degree programs.

Most importantly, risk and financial burden would be borne by borrowers and lenders, not the state and taxpayers. The majority of the risk would be transferred to lenders, who are in a better position than student borrowers to bear it. Meanwhile, students would be free to pursue their chosen career paths without worrying about fixed monthly payments that could ruin their future financial prospects. The risk of default would be arguably lower than what we face now. These points should be remembered as policymakers in Oregon and across the country consider the crisis of higher education debt. Perhaps the market―not the government―has  solutions. Human capital contracts may be one of them.


Everet Rummel is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

“Pay-It-Forward” Is a Step Back

By Joel Grey

The Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission is considering a proposal called “Pay-It-Forward.” This pilot program would give free tuition at a state university to one thousand high school graduates each year, beginning in 2016. In exchange for free tuition, students would cede 3-5% of their paychecks over a twenty-year period. Although the program is intended to become self-sustaining, it would cost between $6.5 and $20 million each year for the first twenty years until that happened.

This is an example of a government proposal that is not well thought out. Yale tried a similar experiment in the 1970s and eventually forgave much of the debt years later. Many students overpaid for their education, while 20% defaulted. Oregon shouldn’t repeat Yale’s mistake.

Furthermore, having a third-party payer for college reduces students’ incentive to decide whether to attend college or to pursue other options, like technical schools. It also makes students less sensitive to the prices of institutions, likely increasing the cost of college over the long run.

Education should be an investment, but students and their families should invest and then reap the benefits. That way, talented students can succeed based on merit, rather than government funding students at great cost to taxpayers, with no guarantee a pilot program like “Pay-It-Forward” will work as intended.

Government simply can’t make decisions as well as the individuals who are affected by those decisions.

Joel Grey is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.