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San Diego Transcript: Is College Debt Necessary for Every Student?

Originally published in the San Diego Transcript on May 29, 2019

Thousands of college graduates and their proud family and friends across the U.S. and in San Diego gathered this month to celebrate a major milestone. They deserve congratulations for all the hard work it represents, especially for those who are the first to graduate from college in their family.

But reality sets in quickly. Graduates will put their degrees front and center asthey search for relevant, meaningful employment post-graduation. Many will achieve good paying jobs, but it still won’t be enough for them to start paying off the high price of their college diplomas.

According to statistics in a recent Wall Street Journal report, four in 10 Americans ages 25 to 37 hold at least a bachelor’s degree compared with about a quarter of baby boomers, and three in 10 Gen Xers when they were the same age. The average student-loan balance for millennials in 2017 was $10,600, more than twice the average owed by Gen X in 2004, according to a report by the Federal Reserve quoted in the Journal.

Imagine then the sense of overwhelming relief for the 400 graduates in the Class of 2019 at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. During his commencement speech on May 19, billionaire technology investor and philanthropist Robert F. Smith announced his family was providing a grant to eliminate the student debt of the entire Class of 2019. It is a gift estimated to be worth approximately $40 million. Aileen Dodd, spokesperson for Morehouse College, said the gift is the biggest single gift in the school’s history.

Who wouldn’t applaud this tremendous, life changing gesture? But it’s not a solution to the current college debt crisis. College debt is the second highest form of private debt in the United States, second only to mortgage debt. Students owe $1.2 trillion, and that figure increases every year. Nearly 45 percent of 25-year-olds have outstanding college loans, with an average debt above $20,000. It affects their employment decisions and their ability to establish independence.

A traditional college education leading to a degree is not the only path to career success. Skilled trades including the construction industry are facing a shortage of qualified workers. In many construction careers, workers earn just as much as someone with a college degree after completing their four to five year apprenticeship-training program, like the one offered by the Associated Builders and Contractors of San Diego’s Training Academy.

Many capable, ambitious young people might be surprised at the high level of training and sophistication of the skills required to succeed. Our apprentices find their math and reading skills pushed to the limit as they learn to interpret, analyze, calculate and create sophisticated construction plans and implement them. They learn management, logistics, and personnel skills just like any university business major. Many graduate and take on supervisory roles, or go on to start their own businesses and create more jobs.

Apprentices are employed as part of their training program, learning through on the job application of skills while earning full-time pay and employment benefits such as health insurance. After working all day long, apprentices also attend classes and participate in hands-on lab work several evenings a week for four to five years. These programs aren’t for everyone.

Upon graduation in June, these men and women become certified journeymen recognized at the state and federal level. They earn a good living with opportunities for continuing career growth. They are not burdened by crushing debt like many of their peers with college degrees.

Apprenticeship programs are not limited to construction trades. There are dozens of apprenticeship programs in fast growing professions such as healthcare, information technology and law enforcement. The California Division of Apprenticeship Standards database provides information about available apprenticeship programs organized by craft and by geographic region at

It would be wonderful if more people like Robert F. Smith shared their fortune with the next generation. But billionaires can’t solve the college debt problem alone. Taking advantage of alternate paths to success such as apprenticeship training is a viable option for many Americans worthy of greater consideration.

Getting a college degree requires initiative, diligence, drive and perseverance. So does completing an apprenticeship training program. The reward can be a lifelong career in your chosen field, a good income, no college debt, and the satisfaction of a job well done every day.

Les DenHerder is President and CEO of HPS Mechanical, Inc, and chairman of the Associated Builders and Contractors San Diego board of directors. For more information visit

ABCSD  I  13825 Kirkham Way Poway, CA 92064  I  Tel: 858.513.4700  I  Fax: 858.513.2373  I  I

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