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The only way to get ahead and enjoy a secure standard of living is supposedly to go to college and get a degree. And while you are at it, look into your crystal ball and determine the most likely field of opportunity for the next 25 to 30 years. But what about alternative paths such as on the job training?

The need for a college degree has become a mantra over the years. Young people, and their parents, believe that anyone without a degree will be relegated to a lifetime of dish-washing. This belief is probably the most important single factor in the astronomical rise of college tuition rates, if everyone believes that life cannot be lived without the degree, they will pay almost any price to acquire one.

Is it true that college is essential to financial well-being, security, and economic and social mobility? Here at Bold Business, we have combed through the stats and a variety of resources to come to the conclusion, absolutely not. But, we want to add an important caveat, training is important and academic learning is important as well. Our point is that the typical career path, of four to eight years of specialized academic study, then going to work, may be the wrong path for most people.

Take a minute with that.

Many of you are probably already formulating arguments against that statement, and repeating all of the stats you have been fed for decades about the earnings potential of college grads vs. high school grads. There is plenty of truth in those statistics too. But they don’t tell the whole picture. They leave out important details. Most of all, they ignore the changing dynamics of the workplace and the fact that college isn’t just expensive these days, it is astronomically expensive.

Our bold point isn’t that training and education are bad, it is simply that there is a much better way to get training and advance on a career path than to roll the dice with a college diploma that may or may not land you a decent job.

We are advocates of corporate training and education programs. Employer guided training and college programs are far more efficient and effective at helping workers obtain precisely the correct skills needed to advance within their own company.

We went looking for training programs that let employees climb that ladder from the bottom to the top and found that one of the best is in the much-maligned “dead end” job of burger flipper. McDonald’s. If you are regular kid, with lots of ambition and no silver spoon, Mickey Ds just might be your ticket not just to the good life, but to a very very good life.

McDonald’s or College? A Comparison of Opportunity and Cost

Many corporations and private businesses offer career training and growth opportunities, but we particularly enjoyed the comparison of “burger flipper” to college. So let us get to it, how do these two career paths compare in a head to head.

The argument for college degrees begins from the assumption that average earnings for college graduates exceed those of high school grads. Of course, average is one of those tricky words. But current estimates put the college kick at about $16,000. And that equates to about $500,000 in additional earnings over a lifetime.

That’s a substantial increase. However, the NCES found that the average bachelor’s degree in the United States now costs $37,172. When you calculate four years of lost income opportunity cost while attending college, and the debt service, that $500,000 starts to disappear pretty quickly.

But we suggest that it is not truly an either/or situation. For bright and ambitious young people at a place like McDonald’s, burger flipper isn’t the last job, but the first job. The company offers training in-house for shift leaders and managers. McDonald’s created “Hamburger University” back in 1961, 7,500 employees and franchisees pass through their program every year, gaining the skills and knowledge necessary to run million dollar restaurants.

For those who have college aspirations, McDonald’s and many companies like them offer tuition reimbursement, which allows their employees to attend college and graduate debt-free. It isn’t easy to attend college while working, but over half of current college students do so, and it is a viable option to avoid high debt costs after graduation.

McDonalds - Internal PromotionExperience and Promotion Can Be the Most Important Benefits

But, the real advantage to joining a company that trains and promotes from within is the opportunity to work rather than sitting on the sidelines while going to school. McDonald’s employees are involved in the workforce, developing their skills, getting feedback from supervisors, learning where their talents and preferences lie on a daily basis. Combine this self-knowledge and experience with on-staff career path counselors, and it is easy to see how McDonald’s employees benefit from professional feedback, advice and opportunity.

Why don’t more families struggling to pay for college and find the right career path take advantage of these kinds of opportunities?

It is probably just cultural myopia. Turn on the news and on any given day of the week it is possible to hear that career opportunities for American millennials are gone, they’ve flown the coop. The only alternative is college, and only the right colleges, and only the right degrees. Its creating a situation where everyone is chasing the same degree, forcing the value of that degree downward and the cost upward, making the struggle for economic and social mobility even greater.

People often don’t hear the good news stories of opportunities available from employers like McDonald’s. Like the fact that McDonald’s aggressively promotes from within. 50% of their restaurant managers began working at the company as crew. 60% of their franchisees began as crew members. Those are impressive statistics by any stretch of the imagination.

Is it a glamorous field? Certainly not, but it is stable and has fared far better through the past 30 years than a whole host of “glamour jobs.”  Shirley Chang, now Managing Director for TGIF, spent most of her career with McDonald’s, benefiting from training and internal promotion opportunities to rise from the ranks of crew to Managing Director Hong Kong. She had gone to trade school to become a nurse and found that it did not offer advancement opportunities, so she took a job at McDonald’s as crew in Taiwan and found that she liked it. She steadily climbed the corporate ladder and developed her career, through the ranks to VP and Director positions. Her nursing degree did not lead to this kind of wide-open opportunity.

Ms. Chang is not alone. Career path planning and growth is one thing that corporations excel at. The training offered to employees is often superior to that which can be found in colleges and universities, because it is more up-to-date and more relevant. Plus, employees tend to retain that information better because it is relevant to their daily lives and not just something to be memorized from a textbook.

Work or College? Is It the Wrong Question?

Formal education is necessary to develop many skills. However, the bold idea we would like to suggest is that it may be more effective for most people to find a position at a company that will help foster their growth, with training, and opportunities for internal promotion and attending college with tuition reimbursements.

This plan helps students and adults re-entering the workforce develop day to day working skills, as well as gaining a better understanding of their real world preferences and talents. Plus it allows employees to tap into the guidance and mentoring that their company can offer, to help them develop their careers over the long term.

Grabbing for the brass ring through college certificates and degrees benefited generations in the past. But, these days, the best path may be through employer provided support, training and education.

We hope that in the future more employers begin to see their employees as a resource to be developed, and that more employees take advantage of the opportunities to climb those ladders and help build their companies from the inside.