SPECIAL REPORT: Are College Degrees Worth it?


“The disparity between the jobs that are available versus the number of people that can fulfill those is a huge gap,” said Devin Howland, director of economic vitality for the city of Fayetteville. 

The Fayetteville Public School District aims to close that gap by giving its students real-life work experience.

“Instead of calling an electrician out every so often and having to pay a whole bunch of money, I was like, ‘Why don’t I try doing it myself?'” said high school senior, Antaven Stephens.

Stephens said living in an old house with electrical issues helped him discover his dream of becoming an electrician. He decided to forgo a traditional four-year education and is going straight into the workforce after he graduates.

“The only thing I feel like I’ll be missing out on is the amount of debt I could get into,” Stephens said.

While school wasn’t Stephens’ route, the National Center for Education Statistics states traditional college enrollment has increased this century with 13.2 million students enrolled in 2000 to 16.9 million in 2016. Trade school enrollment has also increased from 9.6 million students in 1999 to 16 million in 2014.

“For a long time, there was a singular focus that you have to go to college,” Howland said. “And while that was the best path for me, it may not be the best path for somebody else.”

Howland said with the traditional school versus trade school debate, neither is better than the other. Especially since it’s impossible to predict what the job force will need in the future.

“When you don’t know what’s ten, 20 and 30 years out, what we can do is focus on what jobs are in demand now,” Howland said.

“One of the closest trades to being recession proof is a hairdresser,” said co-director of Paul Mitchell the School for cosmetology in Fayetteville. “Women especially will pay for their hair before they pay for a lot of other things.”

Warren said she sees a wide range of students enroll at Paul Mitchell the School, including people straight out of high school to those who already have a four-year degree. She said job placement after the program is a priority.

“I make sure that we maintain good relationships with the salon,” Warren said. “In fact, we’re inspected on placement by the government.” 

Amanda and co-director Robert Warren agree Paul Mitchell and schools like it are a good way to get into the workforce faster, but Robert has experience on both sides. While he works in trade schools now, he earned a bachelor’s from a university.

“There’s nothing wrong with a college degree,” Robert said.”As long as you know what you’re wanting to do with it, and the money that you’re investing into it will pay off for you later on in life.”

“A student who receives a four-year college degree will earn about $570,000 more in that student’s lifetime,” said dean of admissions for the University of Arkansas, Suzanne McCray.

McCray said 80% of University of Arkansas graduates leave the school with an internship or some type of real-world experience. But she said the benefits of college go beyond the actual coursework.

“A lot of jobs are gotten through connections,” McCray said. “And students in college make a lot of connections with people who are going to go off and do interesting things.”

McCray said actual classes are still important because they teach critical thinking skills that will transfer to any job.

“The University of Arkansas is preparing students for jobs that don’t exist,” McCray said. “We understand that.”

In Springdale, preparation starts early.

“We have programs of study and pathways that prepare students for careers that are of interest to them,” said Kelly Boortz, assistant principal at the Don Tyson School of Innovation.

Boortz said these programs allow some students to graduate with industry certification. The class of 2019 will be the first graduating seniors since the school opened in 2014. Boortz is proud to boast a 100% placement, meaning every senior has a plan for college, college courses, or a job.

“I think we’re just empowering students to be able to live their dream and figure out what success is for them,” Boortz said. 

Here are the top projected jobs over the next decade, according to Business Insider:

Here are the average costs of trade school and traditional universities according to The Simple Dollar:

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