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The status quo in higher education cannot hold. Year after year, families face the grueling process of trying to send their kids to schools they can’t afford, turning what should be a joyful time into a stress-fueled anxiety spiral. As soon as those coveted acceptance letters come in, the question changes from “Where am I going to go to school?” to “How the hell are we going to afford this?” As attorney Steve Cohen wrote for TIME earlier this year, financial aid options remain slim for middle-class families. They’re oftentimes expected to contribute up to $20,000 a year to their kids’ college tuition, which in a lackluster economy is an all-but-impossible feat. Tuition costs have risen more than 1200 percent since 1978, a staggering increase that places more and more strain on prospective students and their families. The high costs of undergraduate tuition, let alone graduate programs, have long forced students to saddle themselves with loan debt they can’t repay. In fact, undergraduate debt may have influenced a recent decline in graduate enrollment numbers. Public schools with strained budgets can’t offer as much as they once might have in tuition assistance, making grad programs a harder sell for qualified students. At some point, the bottom has to fall out. A Forbes contributor called higher ed “ground zero for disruption” last year, but what exactly would that look like? Many jobs call for a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, meaning that people risk being shut out of opportunities if they opt not to go to school. And as Jason Saltzman wrote for Entrepreneur, the networks you build in college, whether through Greek life, classes, or other activities, can help you build a successful career. Still, the Internet enables people from a variety of backgrounds to study virtually any subject, create a portfolio of work, and demonstrate their skills without ever enrolling in an undergraduate program. Sites such as edx.org offer courses from elite schools such as Harvard and MIT, and platforms like Udemy and Lynda sell trainings and tutorials on an incredible array of topics. A rise in entrepreneurial culture could also spur a shift away from traditional schooling, as would-be founders seek apprenticeships and use online tools to access business trainings. Initiatives such as BMW’s Scholars Program allows people to work and attend classes, where they develop skills that they can use in their work at the company’s South Carolina manufacturing plant. Billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel established a fellowship to entice students away from college and into the startup world, many of whom have seen massive success through the program. Paul Gu, co-founder of the alternative lending site Upstart, is one of the program’s notable graduates. While not every student has entrepreneurial aspirations, many may decide to skip college in favor of real-world work experience and zero debt. Another Forbes contributor noted that people who are uncertain about school can rise quickly from entry-level jobs straight out of high school and can make a decent living by studying in trade programs to be a plumber or electrician. The Internet has also created countless opportunities for selling products through sites like Etsy and Shopify, making money from affiliate marketing, and monetizing personal blogs and video channels. Think of the 17-year-old behind Origami Owl, the $250 million jewelry business. She’ll never have to worry about student loans, and it’s not impossible to replicate her success. Many bloggers and online owners publish courses and sell trainings in how to build businesses, market your consulting services, and create a profitable author following. People can achieve their dream jobs for a fraction of what it would cost them to attend a four-year school. While college is still a formative experience, there is an ever-growing number of ways to build a career and make a living that doesn’t require a degree. As tuition costs remain high and young generations’ disillusionment with debt increases, it’s not unlikely that people will seek alternatives to college and graduate programs.
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