Parents & students weigh the cost of a 4-year degree over technical certifications

Posted at 6:30 AM, Sep 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-13 14:19:42-04

(WXYZ) — If you're the parent of a high school senior weighing whether or not a four-year degree is worth it, you're not alone.

Even on the heels of President Joe Biden announcing some student loan forgiveness, many people are experiencing sticker shock as they dig into how much college would cost for their kids.
Many will argue there are plenty of good-paying jobs that don't require a four-year degree. But others are set on helping make college a reality for their children.

Amy Wilczynski, a mother of two from Clinton Township, has been touring colleges with her daughter, Molly — a high school senior.

"The cost is astronomical," Wilczynski said. "We've been aware of it for a long time because we knew that, you know, our daughter was college-bound and wanted a four-year traditional college experience. And so, we have been saving," Wilczynski said.

Wilczynski graduated from Oakland University. She met her husband there and earned a bachelor's degree in communication and a master's degree in English. She's been working the the public relations field and said for her, college was 100% worth it. But she admits the cost is much higher than when she went to college.

Shawn Orebaugh, a father of three from Chesterfield Township, is a welder fabricator with 25 years of experience. He fell in love with the field in high school. He has earned about 30 welding certifications over the years — paid for by the companies employing him.

I think for me this has been awesome because I still really enjoy it," Orebaugh said.

His oldest son, Keegan, just finished a summer welding job, and Orebaugh said the demand for workers — especially welders — is high.

"I think you could make $60,000 to $80,000 a year," he said referring to what young people can make in the field right now after obtaining their initial certification.


Preston Cooper, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity (FREOPP)said college students are paying almost double what they did 20 years ago.

”We see that the average student debt for people who graduate with a bachelor's degree is going to be about $30,000," Cooper said..

FREOPP recently analyzed 30,000 bachelor's degree programs across the U.S. to calculate the return on investment.

“It really depends not just on how much you borrow, but also what the value of your degree is and whether that degree is going to be valuable enough to give you the salary that will enable you to pay back your debts," Cooper said.

Some of FREOPP's key findings:

  • For students who graduate on time, the median bachelor's degree has a net return on investment (ROI) of $306,000
  • Over 1/4 of programs have a negative return on investment (ROI)
  • 4 in 5 engineering programs have an ROI of above $500,000, but the same is only true for 1% of psychology programs.

"So, is this bad news for those who have always dreamed of getting a degree in the arts?" I asked Cooper.

He said there are some exceptions, but added, ”You should be aware that in most cases, the return for those programs is not going to be too good," he said.

Cooper also reminded people to do their homework by visiting
There you can search and compare colleges, the fields of study, and also check out links to apprenticeships and other careers that don't require a four-year degree.

According to Cooper, the highest-paid degree programs are typically in computer science, engineering, economics, business, and nursing.

He said the highest-paid non-degree programs include welding, metalworking, electrical transmission installation, elevator repair, radiologic technician, and licensed practical nurse.

Bottom line: If you're weighing whether or not college will be worth it, you may want to ask yourself how you can make college worth it.