Maybe You Should Have Gone to Trade School

According to recent findings from the National Student Clearing House Research Center, college enrollment rates are decreasing after a decade of dramatic growth, indicating that the once-coveted college degree might very well be decreasing in appeal.

Is anyone surprised?

In this economy, a college degree means nothing and everything at the same time. More than 30 percent of U.S. adults have a diploma, so it's hardly a rarity that sets you apart from the masses. On the flip side, you'd be hard-pressed to get anywhere worthwhile without that little piece of paper. Unfortunately, with a whopping 40 percent of recent graduates unemployed, that diploma isn't much of a guarantee you'll get anywhere worthwhile with it either. That, my friends, is what they call a Catch-22.

It was Nelson Mandela who said that "education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world," and he was right. The value of and demand for highly-educated and intelligent people is everlasting. Sadly, the higher education system of the world's leading super power has evolved to place a higher premium on the extrinsically valuable credential, rather than the intrinsically valuable education itself.

Culturally, college has long been regarded as the time when it's socially acceptable to drink yourself into promiscuous oblivion for four years. We've all seen Animal House.

I went to a top tier university that prides itself on not only being rigorous and nerdy, but decidedly "not fun." You would think that, at such a school, kids wouldn't exactly be living up to the Animal House reputation. But alas, every campus -- from the illustrious Ivies, to the bucolic liberal arts colleges, to the big states schools -- has a pervasive party culture wherein recklessly skipping class, hooking up, and cheating are tolerated (if not entirely accepted), widespread phenomena. And employers, graduates and prospective students have caught on.

For decades, a college degree spoke for itself. A diploma meant you were one of the lucky few who had the brains, brawn or bank account to obtain an education which, in turn, made you a rare, marketable asset to many employers. But, when the supply of debatably-educated people boasting of a diploma increased, the value of that diploma decreased and the credential was debased. It's a matter of pure economics.

That's, in part, the reason why a new premium has been placed on advanced degrees. According to U.S. News and World Report, "With a bachelor's degree in the 1980s, one could secure an entry level position as an admissions counselor, academic adviser, or student services coordinator. By the 2000s, applicants for these same entry-level positions were not even considered unless they held a master's degree."

You want to show employers you're really worth your salt? Forget undergrad, where's that master's?

Naturally, people are going to start asking, "Well, what's the point?" Why take on all that debt for a relatively meaningless degree?

"The only position a B.A. qualifies you for these days is an underpaid internship," lamented a recent college graduate. "I'll take it though. What other choice do I have?"

Well, actually, there are other options. Employers in the stereotypically "blue collar" manufacturing industry are want for skilled workers. And as demand for these skilled workers increases, so too does compensation. Again with the basic economics! A 2012 salary survey by IndustryWeek found that manufacturing managers earned an average salary of $99,643, while the median was $86,000.

When you consider this, it's puzzling to think that so many "educated" young 20-somethings are slaving away in fancy, white collar office buildings for next to nothing or living in parents' basements, holding out for a career that is "fulfilling." Many factors are at play, of course, but it's hard not to wonder whether the undeniable cultural emphasis on the college credential has led to a stigmatization of less cerebral, skilled labor. Is being unemployed but with a degree really that much more noble than working in a factory without one?

For the sake of both education and the economy, it's high time we reconsider the premium we, as a society, place on such a costly piece of paper that has become a greater testament to four years of boozing it up in the frat rather than four years in the stacks.