Rachael Wittern earned straight As in high school, a partial scholarship to college and then a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. She is now 33 years old, lives in Tampa, earns $94,000 a year as a psychologist and says her education wasn’t worth the cost. She carries $300,000 in student debt.
Dr. Wittern’s 37-year-old husband worked in a warehouse for several years before becoming an apprentice electrician. He expects to earn comparable money when he’s finished—minus the debt. When and if they have children, Dr. Wittern says her advice will be to follow her husband’s path and avoid a four-year degree.
“I just don’t see the value in a lot of what I studied,” she says. “Unless they have a really specific degree in mind we’d both prefer they take a more pragmatic, less expensive route.”
For traditional college students, the American postsecondary education system frequently means frontloading a lifetime’s worth of formal education and going into debt to do it. That is no longer working for millions of people, and the failure is clearing the way for alternatives: Faster, cheaper, specialized credentials closely aligned with the labor market and updated incrementally over a longer period, education experts say. These new credentials aren’t limited to traditional colleges and universities. Private industry has already begun to play a larger role in shaping what is taught and who is paying for it.
For more than a century, a four-year college degree was a blue-chip credential and a steppingstone to the American dream. For many millennials and now Gen Z, it has become an albatross around their necks.