Skipping college for a high-paying job might be the right move

by Grace

18-year-olds are skipping college to take high-paying oil field jobs.  A risky move leading to dead-end jobs or an avenue to a middle-class life?

A New York Times story about some 18-year-olds making the “risky decision” to go work at oil field jobs paying lucrative salaries raises the question of how this compare with the alternatives.  Substantial risks are also being taken by students enrolling in college with poor chances of obtaining a degree or of graduating unprepared to secure jobs that will enable them to pay off their crippling student loans.  Heather McDonald wrote about this in National Review.

The New York Times seems concerned that teens in the fracking belt of eastern Montana are opting to work in the new oil-field economy right after high school rather than going straight on to college. A front-page story warns: Taking a job is “a lucrative but risky decision for any 18-year-old to make, one that could foreclose on his future if the frenzied pace of oil and gas drilling from here to North Dakota to Texas falters and work dries up.”

Let’s see. Where is a teenager more likely to learn the basic and transferable virtue of showing up every day and on time, not to mention how to get along with a boss and fit into an organization — as a communications and binge-drinking double major at Missoula State University, or as a mechanic fixing broken rig equipment? Too many high-school graduates are reflexively going to college as it is, without a clue what they are doing there or how to take advantage of higher education. Mandatory stints in the private economy before college enrollment could do wonders for study skills. If, by deferring or maybe even skipping college entirely, students were foregoing their one hope for immersion in Western civilization, there would indeed be grounds for regret. But colleges’ own curricular decisions have long since destroyed their right to present themselves as a gateway for precious knowledge of the past.

Walter Russell Mead hailed it as “excellent news for teens looking to earn a middle class life without going to college”.

The real significance of the story is that brown jobs are making it possible for Americans to make a decent living without a college degree.  It’s a heartening sign of a new reality that some teens are finding ways to launch a middle class life directly out of high school. As the energy boom continues, we may be seeing a lot more of this. New developments in oil and gas extraction are already helping to point us towards energy independence. If they can also help build up the middle class, that’s even more reason to celebrate them.

So, what is it?  Risky dead-end move or a path to a middle-class life?  If you believe college is not right for everyone, these young adults in Montana are probably doing the right thing.



4 Comments to “Skipping college for a high-paying job might be the right move”

  1. Note: I do *not* think that every 18 year old needs to go to college. In fact, my brother went to tech school and has done quite well for himself.

    One problem with this situation, though, is that oil field work is cyclical. Odds are that in 10 years these “kids” will be married with kids of their own and going to college to facilitate the next job (and the job that will support a family when no one’s hiring in the one job you know almost always seems to require a college degree) will be much harder.

    However, that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t do this now. But it does make it important that anyone taking advantage of boom time jobs bank as much money as they can.

    This could also be a good case for a slower paced online education. Take 1 or 2 online courses at a time while working now and get the best of the job market while insuring yourself against future problems. Even if you just got enough college completed to put you in reach of the degree completion programs, then you’d be better off later on.

    A more interesting case is for kids who are already in college. Is it worth dropping out of college without a degree to work in the oil field? What about if you were offered a good job in your major? Does the answer depend on whether you’ve taken out loans?


  2. You make a good point about the advantage of taking some courses even while you’re making the big bucks. The broader lesson is that we all should try to keep as many options open as we try to survive this shaky economy.

    To me, the answer almost always will depend on whether you’re taking out loans to pay for college. If it’s a choice between taking out $50-100k (or more) in loans to get your degree now or being able to save $50-100k while you’re working at a job that pays well, then I say go for the job and defer college. It can get complicated, with one concern being that if you don’t enroll right out of high school you may never get your degree. (That’s at least once concern I’ve heard expressed by a few parents.)

    “But it does make it important that anyone taking advantage of boom time jobs bank as much money as they can.”

    Yes! Speaking from my own experience of working during some boom years in the old business, I was very pleased that I had the discipline to save some money during those years. But one big mistake many of us made at the time was to put our money into real estate that later dropped in price by 50% or more. Ouch, that hurt.


  3. I agree with the advice to 1) save money 2) have an exit strategy. If you do those two things, I think there’s no harm and a lot of good in working in the oil fields during the years that would normally be spent in college. A disciplined kid could create the equivalent of a trust fund in just a few years.

    That said, it’s very difficult for young men that age to have that sort of self-control. On yet a third hand, if you don’t have a lot of self-control, the college thing isn’t going to work out for you, either.


  4. “That said, it’s very difficult for young men that age to have that sort of self-control. On yet a third hand, if you don’t have a lot of self-control, the college thing isn’t going to work out for you, either.”

    Since apparently executive function doesn’t mature completely in men until well into their twenties, maybe the most likely scenario is a 20-something man motivated to go to college but too broke to afford it.


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