Rachael Wittern earned straight As in high school, a partial scholarship to college and then a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. She is now 33 years old, lives in Tampa, earns $94,000 a year as a psychologist and says her education wasn't worth the cost. She carries $300,000 in student debt.
Dr. Wittern's 37-year-old husband worked in a warehouse for several years before becoming an apprentice electrician. He expects to earn comparable money when he's finished—minus the debt. When and if they have children, Dr. Wittern says her advice will be to follow her husband's path and avoid a four-year degree.
"I just don't see the value in a lot of what I studied," she says. "Unless they have a really specific degree in mind we'd both prefer they take a more pragmatic, less expensive route."
College students, the American postsecondary education system frequently means frontloading a lifetime's worth of formal education and going into debt to do it. That is no longer working for millions of people, and the failure is clearing the way for alternatives: Faster, cheaper, specialized credentials closely aligned with the labor market and updated incrementally over a longer period, education experts say.