College 'Sticker Shock' Making Certifications and Associate Degrees More Attractive

The term "sticker shock" is gaining broader application, moving past retail and now into the post-secondary education market.

The average cost of tuition and fees for the 2015-16 school year, according to the College Board, is $32,405 at private colleges, $9,410 for in-state residents at public colleges, and $23,893 for out-of-state residents attending public universities. This does not include room and board, books, computers, software and other necessary supplies.

Since at least the late 1950s, the increases in the cost of tuition and fees have far outpaced the overall inflation rate, as measured by the consumer price index. Over the past six decades, tuition has grown at 1.5 to 2 times the rate of general inflation.

Worse, it doesn't appear this will slow down. According to FinAid.org, a website devoted to issues related to student financial aid, current rate increases are averaging 5 to 8 percent. "An 8 percent college inflation rate means that the cost of college doubles every nine years. For a baby born today, this means that college costs will be more than three times the current rates when the child matriculates in college," FinAid notes.

The slogan "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance," doesn't make that any more palatable.

Leaving aside the debate over whether such sizable cost increases are justifiable, what is indisputable is that those increases are posing a very serious threat to college accessibility. And massive student loan debt is threating our children's future.

To access higher education, students are faced with the prospect of paying back tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars in student loans. Student loan debt is more that $1.3 trillion in the United States - it also comes with over 7 percent government imposed interest rates.

This is why for many students, community college, certifications and associate degree programs are increasingly attractive, more affordable alternatives. If the cost of higher education is measured in terms of return on investment (ROI), it's worth taking into account that a New York Federal Reserve study released in June 2014 surprisingly found that the annualized ROI for money spent on a college degree over the graduate's career was largely the same for either a bachelor's or associate degree.

While these programs may provide a cost-effective way for students to develop high demand skills, students must consider the future prospects of the career for which they are training. As technology evolves rapidly, workers need to have adaptable, transferable skills that will provide them with job security, no matter what the technology landscape looks like. In other words, jobs will change, and so must the people in those jobs.

Similarly, students pursuing bachelor's degrees should consider the cost of the degrees and the career prospects for specific college majors. A lot of students leave college ready for their dream careers, only to discover that they have invested in a major in which there is little demand.

We must help them from the beginning. Far too many students enter college unprepared or without a plan. It is imperative for parents, high school teachers, guidance counselors and other advisers to help students understand career options and the education necessary to pursue those options. Students need to know about technology careers, skilled trades and manufacturing.

Students should carefully weigh their options for their intended field of study. Community college may be the best choice for some, especially if a student is still deciding on a college major. For others, a bachelor's degree may be the best option. Regardless, the student will enter post-secondary education with informed decisions and a clear understanding of their future earning potential.

Vince M. Bertram is president and CEO of Project Lead The Way and the author of the New York Times best-seller "One Nation Under Taught: Solving America's Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Crisis."