David Dulberg
October 2018

The Impacts of Student Loan Debt on the Decision to Go to College or Learn a Trade

While some of your graduating high school friends fill out their college applications, Free Applications for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and consider possible majors, you are considering other career options. Would it be better to be a power utility technician, brick mason, plumber, carpenter, railroad operator, or earth driller?

These are just some of the well-paid trades that can be undertaken with a high school diploma. Who wouldn’t want to earn $50,000 to $70,000 per year right out of high school? And without generating student loan debt?

A Growing, Troubling Crisis

By now, you know the deal. Student loan debt is a growing, troubling crisis that shows no signs of letting up. More than 44 million Americans owe more than $1.5 trillion in debt. Here are just some of the effects of that debt:

  • Since 2009, homeownership has dropped 21.2% among Americans under 35.
  • 2015 graduates are projected to put off retirement until age 75.
  • 54 percent of graduates with debt limit their travel and vacation plans.
  • 44 percent of student borrowers are forced to take positions outside their fields.


So no wonder you are considering a trade instead of college. Instead of coming out of college without an average of $39,400 in debt, as the class of 2017, you will get a financial head start. You will build income instead of debt in the four to six years it takes your peers to go to college. For example, a power utility lineman earns more than $70,000 per year, giving them more than a $320,000–$460,000 advantage in this time frame. This is money you can save to a buy a house, a car, or wipe out credit card debt.


Here’s the thing. You shouldn’t overlook the disadvantages to skipping college as well. Many of these trade positions require physical exertion that may limit a worker’s physical health over time. Knees, backs, shoulders, and hips are particularly susceptible to injury and can lead to difficulty remaining in a trade.

And as income gaps grow larger, the quantity of these well-paid trade positions is limited and under constant threat of being outsourced to cheaper labor sources. Scrambling to upgrade skills and education mid-career can be highly challenging, and can quickly eliminate any earlier earnings advantage.

Still, student loan debt has changed the calculation. College was once a fairly sturdy rung on the way up the ladder to a better life. Now, not only does that rung feel loose, the ladder itself looks tilted, unreliable and perhaps not up to the task of supporting you.

And this uncertainty might make you, or your parents, wonder if college is really worth it.  A good job in the trades may be a practical solution to a question that student loan debt has made much more difficult.

Options are available to help

Most people do not realize that there are programs designed to help those who may be struggling with their student loan payments. Thousands of borrowers have trusted Ameritech Financial to be their advocate. Click here to find out what options are available. Our services could help you get back on track.

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David Dulberg

David Dulberg lives with his wife in the coastal hills above a narrow creek, mid-canopy in a redwood forest. He has been writing for non-profits for many years, and volunteers as a pilot on the Baum Squad, a tandem bike riding program for the Earle Baum Center for the Blind. He does not have a pet. This does not make him a bad person.

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