I’ve been thinking about both the excitement and sticker shock of college. My twins are in the class of 2022 and sorting out what route they want to go after high school. Getting into college is a stressful experience — I really worry about how much pressure kids are under, both academically and financially.

But they’ve got options — maybe more than generations before them.

Choosing a good path forward is complicated. Students are weighing not only their interests in what to study in college, but how to pay for it in comparison to potential future earnings. They may also be considering taking the path of learning a trade and skipping school debt while enjoying a career with high earnings. Labor experts are advising students to seriously consider where future labor demand will occur as they decide which career route they pursue.

Simon Anderson, a futurist who keynoted the Chamber’s Impact Summit this month told me he worked for 10 years after high school before he settled on what he wanted to study in a higher ed degree. Even after waiting that long, the now futurist didn’t foresee his interests and career until after he graduated.

His advice to high school graduates: Find out which industry sectors and jobs will be in high demand in the future before making big investments and commitments.

The current labor shortage is in a graduate’s favor. There simply aren’t enough people to fill the growing workforce gap. While there is a labor shortage in fields which require or prefer college degrees, there is critical need in the fields of construction, manufacturing, healthcare, health sciences and other fields.

Some of these positions don’t require a four-year degree.

And as the need for more labor increase, U.S. college enrollment is decreasing. The National Student Clearinghouse showed spring 2021 enrollment down nearly 5% from the previous year, or 727,000 fewer students. This is a 6.8% decline in attendance between the classes of 2019 and 2020, more than four times the decline from the previous year. Play that forward to understand how enrollment declines will exacerbate the job market when newly minted college grads are fewer, while labor demand grows.

Central Oregon is bucking that trend. Bend’s Oregon State University -Cascades campus is increasing. Officials attribute this growth to being located in a former higher education desert where there has been pent up demand for access to advanced degrees.

The university has also developed degrees in response to economic and workforce trends and research — jobs of the future. Central Oregon Community College experienced a decline in enrollment during the pandemic, much like other community colleges across the country. In response, COCC is in the process of evaluating workforce trends to develop new programs to match growing labor gaps.

Bend’s higher-ed options also offer cost-effective education, an essential consideration to potential students. This past year the cost of a college or university degree in the United States stabilized during the pandemic. But even with this temporary reprieve, the long-term impacts of student debt drags down not only the student financial situation, but the greater economy as well.

In 2021, the total U.S. student debt surpassed $1.4 trillion. Robert Farrington, a senior personal finance contributor to Forbes, says “the crippling effect of student loan debt is forcing graduates to spend years after college deleveraging rather than investing in the economy.” He also contends that this debt load is causing graduates to question whether their degree helped them get a job, particularly one that may not provide a salary that allows them to pay back their debt.

The reconciliation of higher education costs against potential earnings is gaining ground with college advisors. Students are now being asked by their school counselors to consider labor gaps and potential income before they choose their college and field of study. Just ask a healthcare provider how the growing shortage of nurses has made this a solid career path.

High schools also need to elevate the trades as viable career paths. Trades can be life-long jobs that are satisfying and well paid. The re-valuation of trades careers is keenly being felt in dwindling work forces and by consumers. If you’ve tried to hire a carpenter or electrician lately you know the wait can be months long before contractors are available.

The bottom line for 2022 seniors: Find your passion but weigh your options. This may mean a higher education degree or a career in a skilled trade. Whatever path you chose have a good understanding of potential career paths and don’t sacrifice your financial future to do it.

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Katy Brooks is the Bend Chamber of Commerce CEO. Her vision for the chamber is to catalyze an environment where businesses, their employees and the community thrive.

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