One and a half trillion dollars—that’s the current amount owed in student loans in America today. One in 4 Americans—an estimated 44.7 million people—have student loan debt averaging $37,172 per person. That means a $393 payment every month for almost eight years after they’re out of school. And these numbers are only climbing.

When it comes to educational debt, many young people have no idea what they’re signing up for. They see their peers taking on similar debt and accept it as the norm. They figure it will all be fine in the end when they earn their degree and land a high-paying job. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.

Some 43 percent of recent college graduates are underemployed in their first job, hindering their ability to pay for the degrees they’ve earned. College debt is the biggest regret among recent graduates, and for good reason. Four-year degree holders need an average of 19.7 years to pay off their loans.

In addition, the national six-year completion rate for students at two- and four-year schools is just 58.3 percent. Sadly, many of those who don’t complete their degree are left with little to show for their investment beyond the crushing student loans they’ve accumulated.

It’s time to rethink America’s college-for-all paradigm and consider the alternative post­secondary pathways that young people can follow. College, while a great choice for some, is not the best choice for every student.

Why Do They Go?

Young people go to college for a variety of reasons. Some students attend college because it’s the next logical step on the journey to their career destination; college aligns with their career goals, and they likely have a viable plan to manage the debt they may incur. For these students, college is a constructive and necessary part of career and life preparation.

Other students are simply doing what parents and educators have told them to do: Get a degree, get a good job. With the best intentions, it seems we’ve created a paradigm in which college is students’ ultimate goal after high school. But college should be a stepping-stone on the way to the real goal—a career.

Still other students go to college to explore what they want to do in life. This can lead to more time—and money—spent in college as the young person tries different things, changes gears, and hopes to find the perfect career fit. In light of the huge financial impact that this can have on the rest of their lives, college as career exploration is generally not a smart investment. College is one of the most expensive times of life. Young people should approach it purposefully with a specific career in mind.

Unfortunately, far too many students are attending college for the wrong reason, and they’re paying the price. We can find a better way to advise these students by exploring and extolling all postsecondary training options that lead to viable, living-wage careers.

Preventing Educational Debt Through Career Exploration

One way to stem the tide of college debt is to provide meaningful career exploration that starts at the middle level and ramps up during the high school years. Ideally, career exploration should be integrated within the existing curriculum as the driving purpose behind all other subjects, rather than being treated as an add-on unit that doesn’t relate to anything else students are learning.

Intentional career planning early on will allow students to choose advanced education purposefully and give them a better chance of reaching their goals—attending college with a clear goal or pursuing a less-expensive form of higher education that aligns with their chosen career goals.

Prioritizing early career exploration:

  1. Gives young people a sense of direction. Once they’re made aware that their interests can translate into exciting career opportunities, they can begin exploring the appropriate academic prerequisites and early training opportunities that will catapult them into a promising future.
  2. Answers the “why” behind their high school education. “Because I said so” isn’t enough of a reason for current generations who want to know the “why” behind everything that’s asked of them. Opening their eyes to the pathway toward their chosen career can spark enthusiasm to perform at a higher level. They’ll understand the relevance of their education to the life and career they want to achieve.
  3. Invites more experiential learning. When teachers, coaches, and counselors know what careers their students want to pursue, they can connect the coursework with the attainment of their students’ dreams. Assignments, field trips, guest speakers, service projects, and more can allow students to explore their interests and prepare for their various career paths.
  4. Allows students to acquire skills and industry knowledge to grow as young entrepreneurs. Internships, apprenticeships, and other hands-on opportunities offer unmatched occasions to excel in their fields of interest. Studies show that students who are exposed to career options early on in their educational journey graduate from high school in greater numbers (93 percent compared to the national average of 80 percent). Career-minded education gives students a distinct competitive advantage.
  5. Positions students to know their objectives before investing time and money. Most young people have been taught to pick a college to attend, then pick a major and, when they finally graduate, decide what job they want to do. Reversing that order would help direct students toward purpose-driven education and save them from having to make career decisions with that financial clock ticking in the background.

Shifting the Paradigm

If we want to shift the college-for-all paradigm, we may first need to educate ourselves on the career fields and opportunities that exist for those who haven’t chosen the college route. No matter how you train for it, every career can make a positive difference in the world and should be celebrated.

Expanding industries such as aviation, engineering, health care, advanced manufacturing, agriculture, and transportation offer many educational opportunities, and these businesses are struggling to find skilled workers to support their growth. A growing number of “middle-skilled” professions in these industries require specialized technical competence gained via industry-specific credentials, certifications, apprenticeships, craft training, and specialized education.

Today’s emphasis should no longer be just about getting young people ready for college. Rather, it should be about preparing them for careers for which college is one of many available pathways. When we open our eyes to the many valuable careers that don’t require a college degree, our communities, economy, and young people will benefit. We must extol the value of all viable education and training choices that lead to a living-wage career with opportunities for advancement and growth. We owe it to the next generation to help them examine the pros and cons of not just one postsecondary pathway, but all options before investing in their higher education.

Mark C. Perna is the founder and CEO of TFS (Tools for Schools) in Cleveland.