As of early 2016, national student loan debt levels surpassed $1.3 trillion for the first time. That money is owed by approximately 43 million borrowers, with around 17 percent of those debtors in default. Now, the number stands at almost $1.4 trillion.

Crushing student loan debt is causing young people to put off major milestones like marriage, a new car, and a house with a white picket fence. And everyone, everywhere, is asking what should be done about the underlying costs of higher education – including our current president.

“We have to make college affordable for every American, because no hardworking student should be stuck in the red,” President Obama insisted at his State of the Union address in January.

Obama continued: “We’ve actually got to cut the cost of college. Providing two years of community college at no cost for every responsible student is one of the best ways to do that, and I’m going to keep fighting to get that started this year,” he added.

And on and on it goes – a barrage of surging costs with no feasible solution in sight. The cost of a degree has surged more than 500 percent since 1985, and the student debt clock ticks up $2,726 every second.

And here we are talking about how to make it “free.”

Yes, College Matters, but Not for Everyone

If anything in life were free, most would agree a college education should top the list. Then free groceries, free houses, and free Chipotle on Thursdays (I threw that last one in there). Wouldn’t that be grand?

In all seriousness, I often wonder if we’re asking the wrong questions. Instead of trying to make college free for a large swath of Americans, shouldn’t we be trying to figure out when college does – and doesn’t – make sense?

Shouldn’t we be asking if a college degree even matters anymore? Shouldn’t we be looking at the hard numbers – the statistics – and deciding if college is a “must” for where we hope to end up?

The answer will certainly be an overwhelming “yes” for most everyone. After all, research has shown that graduates with a bachelor’s degree earn 84 percent more than those with a high school diploma over the course of their lifetimes.

But not everyone is average, and average wages only tell part of the story. Let’s face it, college isn’t for everyone. And a whole other group of young people would likely be much better off pursuing a two-year technical education or even forging a career in the trades.

See Also: Does Free Community College Make Sense?

The fact is, many well-paying jobs don’t even require a four-year degree. And some don’t require college at all. But you have to dig into the statistics – the reality of the job market – to find the best opportunities.

Careers You Can Start without a Four-Year Degree

Using information from the U.S. Department of Labor, sites like the Bureau of Labor Statistics are able to make fairly accurate predictions about the future job market – which industries will be hiring, and which will whittle their numbers down. They also offer useful data on respective salaries for various positions in nearly any industry, and all of that information can be used to decide where you want to end up.

Anyone can log in and see what kind of jobs will be “hot” in their state during the next decade. Meanwhile, the government provides the same data on the national job market as well.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the following jobs offer generous pay and huge potential in the coming decade – and none of them require a four-year degree:

Candidates with a High School Diploma:

CareerAnticipated Job Growth 2014-2024Annual Mean Wage 2015 (National)
Insulation Workers (Mechanical)19 percent$49,970
Medical Secretaries21 percent$34,330
Brickmasons and Blockmasons19 percent$51,750
Pile-Driver Operators17 percent$55,150
Hearing Aid Specialists27 percent$52,850


Candidates with Some College Experience:

CareerAnticipated Job Growth 2014-2024Annual Mean Wage 2015 (National)
Surgical Technologists15 percent$45,940
Commercial Divers37 percent$54,640
Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses16 percent$44,030
Wind Turbine Service Technicians108 percent$53,030
Massage Therapists22 percent$43,170


Candidates with a Two-Year or Associate’s Degree:

CareerAnticipated Job Growth 2014-2024Annual Mean Wage 2015 (National)
Diagnostic Medical Sonographers26 percent$70,880
Occupational Therapy Assistants 37 percent$58,340
Physical Therapist Assistants 41 percent$55,250
Dental Hygienists 19 percent$72,720
Radiation Therapists 14 percent$84,460

Remember, these are just *some* of the high-paying jobs you can get without a four-year degree. There are dozens of others, many of which offer a creative outlet, the chance to help others, or the opportunity to learn a trade that could evolve into a small business.

See Also: Is Self-Employment More Stable than a 9 to 5?

Think carpenters, plumbers, bookkeepers, and painters who work in their trades while their spouse stays home to do the books. This kind of scenario plays out all the time, and often among those who gave up the idea of a four-year degree to forge their own path.

Reconsidering the Graduate Degree

Great info on how the cost of college degrees is crippling people. The article cites examples of good jobs that don't require a 4-year degree.At the very least, college-bound students should take a long-hard look at the numbers before pursuing a graduate degree. For every individual whose advanced degree was the key to their success, there is a poor soul who borrowed tens of thousands of dollars too much for theirs. As the Wall Street Journal noted late last year, graduate students account for 40 percent of all student loan debts – although they make up just 14 percent of students in higher education over all.

This disparity is likely the result of the way federal loans are doled out. Where federal loans for undergraduate students are capped at $57,500, graduate students are allowed to borrow nearly limitless amounts of money to pursue advanced degrees in everything from women’s studies to law.

Many industry experts argue that overly generous federal loan rules are the crux of the issue – driving up costs for graduates who can’t necessarily afford to repay. And the numbers are absolutely startling. As of January 2015, more than 1.82 million borrowers – mostly those with a graduate degree – owed more than $100,000 in student loan debts.

See Also: Is Refinancing My Student Loans Right for Me?

This is part of the reason many graduate students plunge into the myriad income-driven and public service student loan forgiveness programs. According to the Wall Street Journal, enrollment in income-driven repayment plans alone has doubled to 3.8 million within the past two years. These programs promise forgiveness of student loan debt after a period of 20-25 years, but only after the student has paid between 10-15 percent of their “discretionary income” the entire time.

These sad statistics make you wonder if graduate degrees are truly paying off the way many students hope. While it’s true an advanced degree is the only way to qualify for some careers, the price you pay for your “dream job” could literally drag on for decades.

Is a College Degree Still Worth It?

None of this is to say that a college degree is no longer valuable. Actually, the opposite is true. The Bureau of Labor Statistics data on earnings by educational attainment shows the proof is in the pudding.

In 2014, average weekly wages for those with a master’s degree were $1,326, whereas those with a bachelor’s degree brought in $1,101. Meanwhile, associate’s degree holders brought in just $792 and those with some college earned just $741.

See Also: 9 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Choosing a College Major

These numbers provide irrefutable evidence that a college degree is normally a good investment. And for some, a college degree is the first step out of poverty and the beacon of hope they need to pursue their dreams.

But for others, pursuing a traditional degree translates into a life sentence of monthly payments – a cycle of indebtedness that exists with elaborate government intervention yet still requires you to send in a check for 20-25 years.

At the end of the day, it’s up to each of us to decide if the long-term costs are worth it. As college costs and debt levels continue to spiral out of control, I suspect more potential students will look for other ways to get ahead.

Do you think college is a “must” for everyone? Why or why not?