Facing loan debt, students consider alternatives to 4-year colleges

A classroom lab at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay. (WLUK)

FOX 11 continues to explore issues surrounding the high cost of higher education.

It's leading up to our town hall meeting Thursday night on student loan debt, which stands at $1.2 trillion in America.

Education leaders say prospective students are looking more closely at alternatives to four-year schools.

Northeast Wisconsin Technical College president Jeff Rafn says interest from high school students is picking up.

"Once they come here, they realize that this is not some sort of second-rate education, that in fact it's very intense in many cases," said Rafn. "So there's not that necessarily that social stigma, 'Well, I went to the tech.'"

He believes high school guidance counselors and parents are encouraging more students to think about technical college degrees or consider starting there before transferring.

"Our average student debt that we see when they leave is about $8,700," said Rafn. "That compares to around $26,000-28,000 that's coming out of our public four-year universities."

Facts from The College Board show a year of tuition and fees at a two-year public school in Wisconsin costs an average of $4,300. That's about half as much as a year's tuition at a four-year public school, and much cheaper than a year at a for-profit school or a four-year private school.

But federal government data shows on average, people with associate's degrees make less money each year than someone with at least a bachelor's degree.

For people who didn't finish any education after high school, technical colleges remain a common path later in life. David Gryske of Sobieski is studying electro-mechanical technology.

"You know, yeah, you can go to a four-year school and take a lot more classes, but you're spending a lot more of your money for classes that you might not need for the workforce," said Gryske, who is in his second year at NWTC.

By studying a field that's in demand, he expects to quickly find a good paying job at the end of this school year.

The programs at technical colleges match many of the region's open jobs in advanced manufacturing and transportation, notes Jim Golembeski of the Bay Area Workforce Development Board.

"If we don't educate our young people to match the skill sets needed for our economy, our economy suffers," said Golembeski. "So that's a whole new discussion than we've had for really half a century."

He says better career exploration in high school would help people find the right type of education, which would keep their costs lower after high school.

"I think we do young people a disservice, and I have seen this all too often, when they leave high school and go out into a world for which they are completely unprepared, where they know nothing about what a career looks like or what kind of career is appropriate for them or what it takes to get a career," said Golembeski.

Rafn says NWTC is also working with area employers to provide training opportunities.

"Another alternative that I think is attractive for some students that is becoming easier to get into are the apprenticeship programs," he said.

Rafn says the school combines on-the-job training with some classroom time.

Another education path some consider is for-profit online colleges. St. Norbert College economics professor Kevin Quinn urges caution.

"While for-profit higher education is not inherently evil in any way shape or form - there's been lots of those models for a long time - what we've seen is a lot of operators that have brought in students, encouraged them to take out tons of debt and failed to graduate them and they're in terrible shape," said Quinn.

Financial and education experts agree - whatever you pursue after high school, it's important to make it count. Work ahead to get a full-time job as soon as possible after graduation, as a steady income will make it easier to pay down any debt.

Watch our previous stories on why and how we got to record student debt; how student debt is hurting our economy; and tips for families and graduates with student loan debt.

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