In light of President Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan, conservatives have revamped their rallying cry that college is a scam and no one should go. In a lot of ways, college is a scam. It is certainly too expensive. Oftentimes, students spend more time awash in woke politics than learning important life and career skills. However, it’s reductionist and not very helpful to tell young people that college isn’t ever worth their time.

The oft-cited alternative to college is trade school. Conservatives correctly point out that plumbers, electricians, and similar tradesmen can earn just as much...

In light of President Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan, conservatives have revamped their rallying cry that college is a scam and no one should go. In a lot of ways, college is a scam. It is certainly too expensive. Oftentimes, students spend more time awash in woke politics than learning important life and career skills. However, it’s reductionist and not very helpful to tell young people that college isn’t ever worth their time.

The oft-cited alternative to college is trade school. Conservatives correctly point out that plumbers, electricians, and similar tradesmen can earn just as much as some college graduates. Their training, meanwhile, is a fraction of the cost of a bachelor’s degree.

However, we need to be careful about glamorizing manual labor. It isn’t the norm for a plumber to pull six figures; usually those who make this kind of money have managed to start their own business or have been on the job for a decade or more. The median salary for a plumber in 2018 was $53,910, or about $10,000 lower than the national median salary and more than $20,000 lower than the maximum salary for President Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan.

More importantly, jobs requiring physical labor can take a major toll on the body. Your union might guarantee you a nice pension, but can you enjoy your retirement if your knees or back have given out? Will you even survive that long? Loggers, fishermen, roofers, and trash collectors make up four of the five deadliest occupations. The average ironworker makes far less than the national median salary but has the sixth highest fatal injury rate by profession. The physical pain and long hours brought on by these jobs can also lead to higher rates of substance abuse. Mining and construction workers have the highest rates of heavy alcohol use, and construction workers are also in the top five for illicit drug use. Workers in manual labor jobs have been ravaged by the opioid crisis because doctors prescribed them these highly addictive painkillers for workplace injuries. An alarming number will commit suicide at least in part due to the stress incurred by taking on difficult work for low pay.

Skilled trades jobs may have a lower entry fee, but this comes with severe tradeoffs.

We also cannot ignore that there is a significant wage gap between high school graduates and college graduates that is increasing every year. This past February, that gap hit a record high, with the average college graduate earning $22,000 more per year than their high school-only counterparts. Only 16 percent of high school-only graduates will out-earn those with a college degree. Many college degrees are a waste of money because the recipient overpaid on tuition, majored in the wrong field of study, chose not to work in their degree field, or a combination of the above. A college degree can also clearly be well worth the cost.

So what are some real solutions to tackling the student debt crisis beyond the myopic “don’t go to college”? Honestly, yes, tell some people not to go to college, especially if they are planning to graduate with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt with no clear path to repayment. But also recognize that college can be a valuable resource — if students shop for the best deal and make sure their education is pointing them to a stable and high-earning career. Reform federal funding of higher education to bring down tuition costs, which are far outpacing inflation. Promote on-the-job training. Incentivize companies to fill entry-level positions with high school graduates. Provide ways for potential employees to demonstrate value and skill beyond a diploma.

In order to allow young Americans to make the best decisions for their personal and financial well-being, we need to be honest about both the benefits and the major costs associated with skipping out on higher education. College is not the best choice for everyone, but for many, it does provide great opportunity.