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Is college the only path? Picking the education that's best for you

Is college the best choice for you?

Up your financial game

For generations, high school students like you have been told that a college degree is the route to success and financial security. But it's not the only way to go: in fact, while it may seem like all your friends are heading off to college, a large number of high school graduates—about 30 percent—don't take the college path.

Finding happiness and success in your career should start with evaluating your goals, personality and interests because—luckily—you have options.

With costs rising, college can be a huge investment, and like any good investment you need to understand the risk, costs and potential value you can gain. Explore these higher education paths—and some tips for calculating the return on investment (ROI) of your education:

A four-year college:

A four-year college degree is the most common—and one of the most lucrative—routes to take after high school. But even with a four-year degree, much of your ROI depends on what you choose to study: before picking a major, think about how much money you'll need to fork over and the salary you can expect after you graduate.

Many online tools or apps, like the JA Build Your Future app from Junior Achievement USA, or College Scorecard from the US Department of Education, can give you a good idea of the ROI on your college degree. They factor in average debt, starting salary information, and more, and work with community colleges, as well as four-year colleges and universities.

  • Tuition: According to the College Board, the total in-state cost of attendance at a public four-year college averages $25,290 per year. At a private, nonprofit university, the cost is almost double that—$50,900 annually. That means the overall price tag is roughly $100,000-$200,000. Not surprisingly, 65 percent of college grads earning four-year degrees in 2017 ended up with student loans; their average amount of college debt topped $29,650.
  • Salary: The upside of paying higher tuition at a four-year school is that you'll likely end up making more money. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median earnings for college grads with a four-year college degree is $61,724 annually. And salaries can go even higher, depending on the career you choose. People with advanced degrees typically earn bigger salaries—$1,512 weekly, or $78,624 yearly. Then again, advanced degrees also translate into extra tuition—another cost that you'll need to factor into your ROI calculation. To avoid that extra cost, consider a bachelor's degree with high earning potential for recent graduates like chemical or electrical engineering, which report salaries in the $70,000 - $75,000 range for recent grads.

Community college:

The National Center on Education Statistics shows that almost twice as many people attend two-year community colleges as those who attend four-year colleges and universities. At a community college, you can earn an associate's degree after taking coursework in a general major—like business, biology, or communications—or in a specific vocational field, like nursing, criminal justice, or early childhood education. This coursework can prepare you for a bunch of careers, including medical assistant, police officer, oil and gas operator, or software or website developer.

  • Tuition: Community colleges are usually a lot less expensive than four-year schools: according to the College Board the total cost of attendance at a public, two-year community college averages $17,580 per year for in-district commuter students. That includes tuition, fees, room and board, books, supplies, and transportation costs. Overall, that works out to $35,160 for a two-year associate's degree. That's about $66,000 less than what you would spend on in-state tuition and fees at a four-year public college.
  • Salary: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that people with a two-year degree earn a median salary of $825 a week or $42,900 annually. And while this salary might limit your ability to live in some quickly growing cities, there are a number of cities where you can live comfortably on less than 50,000 per year.
  • For some jobs requiring a two-year degree, the payoff is even higher. Air traffic controllers make a median income of $122,410, while dental hygienists average $72,910 and paralegals make $49,500.

Vocational training:

Vocational training, sometimes called technical training programs or trade schools, might be a good option if you prefer working with your hands, want to avoid a desk job, and only want to take training and instruction that is directly related to your future career. These programs commonly lead students into careers in hands-on trades like construction, metal work, masonry, and photography.

  • Tuition: The average cost for a vocational training program is $33,000 over a two year period, but many students can complete their vocational schooling in less than two years—especially those that enroll full-time in a trade school.
  • Salary: Salaries for hands-on trades vary widely, but jobs like installation, maintenance, and repair have median earnings of $950 a week, or $49,400 annually. With that kind of salary, your vocational training will pay for itself in just 8 months after your work start date.

Apprenticeships:

If you want to start earning money immediately, apprenticeship programs are a good bet. They combine on-the-job training with relevant instruction or classroom education, giving you the opportunity to learn and earn money at the same time. Popular apprenticeships include: electricians, carpenters, and truck drivers. You can do apprenticeships in industries ranging from hospitality to health care, manufacturing to telecommunications.

  • Tuition: The good news is that there is no tuition for an apprenticeship program—they pay you! You do put in sweat equity, though, as apprenticeships typically last between one and four years.
  • Salary: The average starting wage for an apprentice is about $15.00 per hour, or $600 per week, which works out to $31,200 yearly. For those who have completed an apprenticeship, their average pay jumps to $60,000 a year on average. That's a pretty good salary, considering you can often become an apprentice at age 16, depending on the work.

There are numerous educational paths you can take to expand your knowledge, sharpen your skills, and prepare for the career. Don't feel like you have to follow the path that everyone else is taking: by doing your homework and researching all the alternatives, you'll be able to pick the option that leads to both personal happiness and career satisfaction—all without breaking the bank.

JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A. Member FDIC

© 2019 JPMorgan Chase & Co.

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