I've been hearing a lot of students questioning the value of college balanced against the amount of debt that is accrued. If my daughter were heading to college next year, hear is the advice that I would give her:
College is not job training. College is (and was and always will be) an initiation into the world of academic thought and reasoning. It is designed to prepare a student to be part of what is today called "the knowledge economy."
If a HS grad would like to do a job that requires only functionary training for the labor economy (in other words, the worker needs to understand how a process works and plays a role in that process for your specific company) then there is no need to go to college (unless there are some specific certifications required, which can often be obtained from trade schools). I'm not speaking only of manual labor here, I'm speaking of all jobs that require minimal creative thought or analysis. Many (not all) administrative, service and yes manual labor jobs fall into this category. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THIS PATH! Many people who have these jobs are very intelligent and develop impressive expertise over years of experience. Most of these jobs offer limited responsibility, so when you clock out your life is yours.
However, if you want a job in which your salary and value to the company is based on your original thought, creativity, analysis, etc. then you probably need to go to college. And the reason is that college actually DEVELOPS your critical thinking, creativity and analysis skills, not that you simply need a piece of paper to get the interview. Jobs in the knowledge economy pay more and are more stable than functionary jobs. If you loose your job, it is MUCH easier to find a new job or even shift to another field without returning to entry level, because your skills are much more broad based and not specialized to a single function or field. The downside - you often have a lot more responsibility and your job may require a commitment beyond the standard hours of employment.
So the question is, how does the HS graduate see themselves and their life? If they will be happy performing a function at their job, keeping their work and home life separate, and running the risk of loosing their job and having to start again from the bottom, then they should consider getting the minimum training necessary for their field.
But if the student wants to be paid for their original contribution to the field that they love, then the path is still higher education. And despite the high costs, the statistics still support that there is financial payout in the long run for the average student.