Much of the developed world holds true the idea that the only way to ensure one has a comfortable, middle-income lifestyle is by earning a four-year degree and entering the corporate workforce. With the cost of four-year degrees at an all-time high and a total of $1.2 trillion in national student loan debt, college is an expense that is increasingly harder to justify, especially for low-income families who struggle to put food on the table. Many people growing up in households led by parents with low-earning jobs often don’t have the means to follow this path and end up repeating the cycle of poverty with a series low-skill jobs that don’t provide good earning potential.

Although 79 percent of students born into the top income quartile in the U.S. obtain bachelor’s degrees,only 11 percent of students from bottom-quartile families graduate from four-year universities, according to Postsecondary Education Opportunity, a policy research center. Additionally, 55 percent of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in the U.S. went to students from top-quartile families with 2010 income of more than $98,875 and only 9.4 percent of those degrees went to students with family income of less than $33,000.

Even if a low-income student pulls together enough grants, loans and cash to get an education at a traditional college or university, they’re committed to an average of 120 credit hours to earn a bachelor’s degree. Think of all the time spent earning that degree. To accomplish 120 credit hours, students will spend roughly 1,800 hours in the classroom and that doesn’t count time doing homework assignments and studying for exams.

And although the average salary of someone with a bachelor’s degree is $45,327, the average student amasses thousands of dollars of debt that will hang over their heads for the next several decades, meaning that every month Sallie Mae and other loan collectors get a portion of that $45,327.

Let’s also consider the number of people who earn what should have been a four-year degree in five or more years. Fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college each year graduate within four years, according to the Department of Education. Almost 60 percent of students graduate in six years. And the University of Tennessee’s Center for Business and Economic Research found that students who took more than four years to earn their bachelor’s degrees earn lower salaries than those who complete the degree in four years.

Only 32 percent of respondents to a recent Washington Post-Miller Center poll said they believed education would move them ahead. It’s not hard to see why people are frustrated with the college education system in America. People need options that will afford them the opportunity to enter the middle-class when four-year degrees are not an option and a better quality of life.

There is another option. Those for whom a college education isn’t a viable option can enter something called the middle-skill workforce.

The middle-skill sector typically includes workers that have more than a high school level education, but less than a four-year degree. They also make up the largest sector of America’s labor market and worldwide labor markets. Key middle-skill industries such as construction and energy management in the U.S. and around the globe have continuously struggled to find sufficiently trained workers to fill these jobs. Currently, roughly 69 million people in the U.S. work in middle-skills jobs representing roughly 48 percent of the labor force.

It’s often overlooked that middle-skilled jobs such as computer-support specialist, residential construction managers and machine operators can offer great earning potential. Job seekers who enter the middle-skill workforce have the potential to earn $40,000-60,000.

It’s time for people to understand that they have other options. By entering the middle-skill workforce, a move that doesn’t require that expensive, time-consuming bachelor’s degree, job seekers can open up avenues to higher earning potential and greater piece of mind.

Did I mention that although 42 percent of respondents to that Washington Post-Miller Center poll considered themselves to be middle class and 45 percent thought they’d move up in social class over the next few years, 60 percent of respondents worry about losing their jobs?

My company, Viridis offers job seekers a place to get the training and job placement they need to have a solid footing in the middle-skill workforce. We offer courses that cost $250 and take between 18 and 40 hours to complete, training users in fields such as concrete installation, residential construction, energy management and housekeeping. Once they’ve passed their industry-certified course, our unique algorithms pair users with open jobs based on their skills, certifications and personal desires.

Consider the return on that $250 investment versus the return on a bachelor’s degree that costs an average $50,000!

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