Inside Money: Is trade school a better investment than college?

If you want to make something of yourself, you need to go to college. That’s been the conventional wisdom. But is it the truth?

A college education comes at a steep price. Today’s average borrower will graduate with $26,600 of college debt, a more than 43 percent increase from 2007, according to The Institute for College Access and Success. In all, more than 30 million borrowers owe more than $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

And it seems many grads can’t afford it. One in 10 defaulted on their loans within the first two years, the Department of Education says, which is the highest default rate since 1995.

That sure is a lot of debt to accumulate, especially when, these days, there is no guarantee of a job when graduation day comes.

One blue-collar guy says suggests that getting your hands dirty may be a better option than going to college for many young adults.

Mike Rowe is the host of “Dirty Jobs,” a Discovery Channel show about professions you’re not likely to learn about in the Ivy League.

“In reality, a four-year degree won’t make you ‘successful’ any more than a gym membership will make you ‘healthy,’ ” Rowe says. “I’m a fan of knowledge and fitness, but I reject the assumption that you have to go broke pursuing either one.”

Rowe says there are big opportunities for those willing to learn a useful skill, and it won’t saddle students with debt for decades.

These are jobs that have been frowned upon by many parents who want to boast at cocktail parties that their kid is a doctor or a lawyer.”

For example, he says, it’s common for welders, union and non-union , to earn more than $100,000 a year. Heavy equipment techs are in short supply, he says, and companies such as Caterpillar are hiring as fast as possible. Skilled employees are in demand.

There also is a need for plumbers, electricians and more. These are jobs that have been frowned upon by many parents who want to boast at cocktail parties that their kid is a doctor or a lawyer.

But Rowe says that less than 12 percent of all jobs now require a four-year degree. He believes the country needs to stop selling so-called higher education as something superior to alternative education, such as trade schools that teach specific stills.

He puts it bluntly: “It’s a bull—- attitude, and it’s creating huge problems.”

The problem is what Rowe refers to as “the skills gap.” That’s when the demand for skilled workers exceeds availability, which affects the overall economy. And we’re there now.

“But it’s not just a mismatch of skills that creates the gap. It’s a mismatch of age, geography, expectation and, most of all, interest,” he says.

The skills gap, he says, is really a “desire gap.”

“In a very general way, I think we’ve lost a fundamental appreciation for hard work and entrepreneurship. It’s a reflection of what we value as a society,” says Rowe. “It’s the best and most obvious indicator of the disconnect between the way we educate our kids versus the opportunities that actually exist in the real world. And that disconnect is big.”

Rowe is trying to do something about this through his mikeroweWORKS Foundation, which supports the skilled trades by offering more than $1.6 million in scholarships for trade school students. He also founded, which lists job openings for skilled tradespeople.

“I know that sounds trite, and maybe a little cranky, but it’s the one thing I heard most consistently on 300 dirty jobs. In every single state, everyone I met talked about the difficulty of finding people who were willing to learn a new skill and work their butts off,” he says.

“MikeroweWORKS was launched to reward those people with very specific scholarships. Hopefully, other foundations will follow.”