Mike Rowe calls push to attend college “Worst advice in the history of the world”

Michael Lux Blog, News, Student Loans 11 Comments

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on January 6, 2014. It has been updated to include up to date job and salary figures.

Mike Rowe, most famous for his work on the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs and Ford truck commercials, thinks that getting student loans for college is foolish. Rowe believes that students should be learning skilled trades, not going into debt for four year degrees.

He points to a poster that was in his high school guidance counselors office as the “Worst advice in this history of the world.” The poster, seen here, depicts an exhausted blue collar worker next to a recent grad proudly holding a diploma. The caption reads, “work smart, not hard”.

Rowe has started a foundation to fund scholarships to attend trade schools as well as a PR campaign encouraging the trade school option.

As Rowe said in one recent interview:

“We’re lending money we don’t have, to kids who will never be able to pay it back, for jobs that no longer exist.”

According to Rowe there are 3 million skilled jobs waiting to be filled, but employers are struggling to find the right people for the job.

Is he right?

Even though the advice to attend college probably isn’t the worst advice in the history of the world, Rowe has a point.

High schools are often evaluated on the percentage of kids that go on to attend college. The sentiment that a student learning a trade is somehow not living up to their potential is absurd.

There was a time when attending college set you apart from your peers and qualified you for many jobs that needed to be filled. Now it seems the pendulum has swung the other way. Having a college degree doesn’t mean employers will be fighting over you, and the degree may not pay for itself in the long run.

Why skilled trades?

Learning a trade may not be as glorified in popular culture, but there is absolutely a need, and there will continue to be one for quite some time.

Just yesterday, my city received nearly a foot of snow.  Today it is -13 degrees with a wind chill 40 below. When the snow was pounding the city, my home lost power for several hours. If it wasn’t for the skilled tradesman who braved the elements, I would be in a potentially dangerous situation.

In addition to providing a valuable service to the community, the men and women working as line installers and repairers have great career prospects according to the US Department of Labor. The Bureau of Labor statistics estimates that these individuals make just over $70,000 per year on average. They also project great job opportunities for those in the field.

The Bottom Line

Obviously, I’m just reporting one example based upon my personal experience, but it illustrates the point that Rowe seems to be making. Not going to college does not make you a failure, in fact, it may be the wisest decision.

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Nick Pavlidis

I’m a big “value education” guy. I like his quote, but obviously it doesn’t apply to all degrees. I do believe more thought has to go into student loan programs – by the students, parents, educators and government. So if you’re planning on making $40,000 per year, it seems a bit crazy to go to an Ivy League school and take out $200,000 in loans. On the other hand, if you wake $40,000 in loans to attend medical school, paying the rest out of pocket, it’s probably not going to do too much harm.

The Student Loan Sherpa
Reply to  Nick Pavlidis

I like the “value education” approach. The emphasis on people going to the “top” school that they get into is dangerous.

First Million is the Hardest

He definitely has a point. Getting a college degree just for the sake of getting a degree is a terrible idea. Taking out student loans for a liberal arts or communications degree just isn’t going to be a smart investment. Plus, there’s nothing wrong with the trades. You can still make a pretty good living without burying yourself in debt. I guess it all boils down to where your talents and ambitions lay.

The Student Loan Sherpa

Agreed. Lots of people don’t consider the fact that it isn’t just the debt you are going in to… you also lose four years+ of earning years. That has to be factored into the investment math.


I think the best answer is it depends. It depends on cost and potential earnings that the degree could help you earn. I wouldn’t want to make a $100k investment for a $40k return.

The Student Loan Sherpa
Reply to  DebtDiscipline

I couldn’t agree more. College is a good idea for some, but not for others. At the end of the day, it has to come down to your good judgment. Requiring college and student loans for everyone is a recipe for disaster.


I definitely think there’s a stigma these days against trade schools and it would be great to get rid of it. I don’t know about you, but I really, really hope we never run out of garbage men and plumbers. That would not be a happy world. In the theater world, it’s actually the skilled tradesmen who make the most – the union stagehands, a bunch of carpenters, electricians and guys who build props and rig things up in the air, make really good money, especially if they stick with it for their whole career – and plenty don’t have college degrees. They do, however, have to study and pass a general knowledge test in their field to become an apprentice, but it’s a really good living. Heck, I’d love to make an apprentice’s paycheck, and my salary isn’t awful.

The Student Loan Sherpa
Reply to  brokeGIRLrich

Well said. I hate to see any negative stigma associated with honest work that makes a good living.

Cash Cow Couple
Cash Cow Couple

Great article on a topic that needs more publicity. We’re growing an army of students saddled with debt, majoring in psychology, expecting 50k per year straight out of college. It’s going to get uglier before it gets better…


I think he makes a good point. While advice to go to college is not the “worst” advice…it doesn’t mean EVERYONE should go. Learning a skill might be a better choice for certain people. Taking on debt to attain a college degree shouldn’t be something taken lightly. And vocational jobs should be an alternative that is promoted in schools as well as going to college.


We should be expanding trade or vocational schools. There is a huge need for plumbers, heating and air conditioning technicians, electricians, auto mechanics, child care workers…..The students who attend trade schools should never be demeaned or believed to be somewhat less than college graduates. College is great for engineering, biology and other scientific pursuits but in my humble opinion they can get rid of the liberal arts programs that lead to no jobs what so ever. Like gender studies, minority studies, philosophy etc.