I finished college in the Spring of 2009. I had a 4 and a half year stint due to lost credits in the shuffle of transfers. By the time I attended my graduation ceremony a few months later, I had accrued about $90,000 in student loans. I don’t know the exact number because it was an overwhelming thought. So I ignored the magnitude of debt and just focused on working to pay it off. At that point it didn’t matter if it was $90,000 or $100,000!

The number was gigantic no matter how you sliced it. My coping mechanism was to do what has always worked in the past: heads down, take it one step at a time, and get to work.

My story has a happy ending. I paid off the loans. I was fortunate to have developed an in-demand skill–unrelated to my college degree–that paid well. Given my experience, I am skeptical of the assumed importance of college.

The following are 5 trends that will disrupt the higher education system in the United States and may provide cheaper and better alternatives in the coming decade.

Generation Debt

Student loan debt now stands at over $1.4 trillion dollars. More than 44 million Americans share in the total. The average monthly payment is between $300 and $400 with an average debt balance of over $37,000.

The average starting salary for college grades is just over $50,000.

It is only a matter of time before the average debt per person exceeds the average starting salary. Will college still be worth it then? The money spent or debt accrued for a college degree is not without opportunity costs.

Student loan debt is considered a key factor for why millennials are not starting as many businesses as previous generations. Millennials came of age in a world where starting a business has never been more accessible. Small businesses are a powerful and important economic engine in the United States.

Small businesses account for half of all employment in the country.

This student debt burden may very well have created a lost generation with repercussions yet to be felt.

Left Wing Indoctrination

The last 2 or 3 years have seen an explosion of social justice and intolerance to thought diversity on college campuses. Colleges respond by further coddling these students with safe spaces and trigger warnings. When did college become the most expensive day care in the world?

The ratio of liberal leaning professors to conservative leaning professors have gradually shifted since the 1990’s to now sit at a completely lopsided 5:1.

The problem with this ratio is not for the right leaning students. The problem is for the left leaning students who are no longer exposed to opposing views. These are the students who pay the high cost of college and then end up in a real world that is nothing like their college experience.

The real world is filled with people of different ideologies. There will be people in the real world who disagree. Who question and challenge. These students will have had little to no exposure to having to defend their ideas. The real world will laugh at and then avoid dealing with those who need safe spaces or trigger warnings from ideas.

There’s long been stereotypes of millennials being fragile or lazy espoused by older generations. The inability of colleges to adequately prepare students for the real world is detrimental to the core selling proposition of higher education.

Employers Value Skills Over Degrees

Employers have always valued skills but a degree used to mean a lot more than it does now. Nearly every job applicant has gone to a 4 year college of some kind and has a degree. This is no longer a unique selling point for candidates. Young people will often pursue more school to get a masters to stand out.

Unfortunately modern companies care less and less about degrees.

The high paying jobs in the science and technology fields require hard skills. Soft skills are still important but any interview process will involve proving your ability. Employers want to see the work you’ve done and the skills you have.

This is actually a positive for everyone. The lack of a degree is not looked down upon by employers today. Your ability to get up to speed quickly because you already possess the skills or can learn fast is more important than a degree.

Which leads us to the greatest equalizer and destroyer of industries the world has ever seen: the internet.

Online Learning

We live in a world where employers routinely give interviewees projects to assess their skills and are more interested in past or personal projects than college. Many of these skills can be taught outside of the traditional college classroom. Specifically in online classes.

The most prestigious colleges offer many of these online courses. Courses taught by the same world class professors found on Ivy League campuses. Often times these courses are free or low cost. Compare this to the myriad of small colleges charging tens of thousands of dollars per year to teach the same material.

Online courses does not yet solve the need for 1-on-1 instruction or disciplines that require more hands on teaching. Something like theater, dance, or even robotics is too physical for the digital world to accommodate.

Rise of Trade Schools

The things that cannot be provided by online courses can be supplemented by trade schools. The idea that vocational training may be better suited to reduce the income inequality in America has been floated for years.

Trade schools can teach students an in-demand skill within a much shorter time period. The cost is lower and the schools often have connections to employers who need workers with these skills.

A decline in young people choosing college would be a boon for trade schools and open up a market for more disciplines that can follow a vocational model. The online + vocational model has the potential to fill the education needs of most people who are choosing to attend college today.

I don’t regret my college experience and I wouldn’t trade it for something different now. But I am not sure I would make the same decisions today as I did then. I overcame the massive debt but it wasn’t pleasant.

Let me know in the comments if are dealing with or have overcome student debt. Would you go the traditional college path if you could do it again?