COLUMBIA, Mo. -- In a town dominated by the University of Missouri's flagship campus and two smaller colleges, higher education is practically a birthright for high school seniors like Kate Hodges.
She has a 3.5 grade-point-average, a college savings account and a family tree teeming with advanced degrees. But in June, Hodges is headed to the Tulsa Welding School in Oklahoma, where she hopes to earn an associate's degree in welding technology in seven months.
"They fought me so hard," she said, referring to disappointed family members. "They still think I'm going to college."
The notion that a four-year degree is essential for real success is being challenged by a growing number of economists, policy analysts and academics. They say more Americans should consider other options such as technical training or two-year schools, which have been embraced in Europe for decades.
As evidence, experts cite rising student debt, stagnant graduation rates and a struggling job market flooded with overqualified degree-holders. They pose a fundamental question: Do too many students go to college?
"College is what every parent wants for their child," said Martin Scaglione, president and chief operating officer of work force development for ACT, the Iowa-based nonprofit best-known for its college entrance exam. "The reality is, they may not be ready for college."
President Barack Obama wants to restore the country's status as the world leader in the proportion of citizens with college degrees. The U.S. ranks 10th among industrial nations, behind Canada, Japan, Korea and some European countries.
But federal statistics show that just 36 percent of full-time students starting college in 2001 earned a four-year degree within that allotted time. Even with an extra two years to finish, that group's graduation rate increased only to 57 percent.
Spending more time in school also means greater overall student debt. The average student debt load in 2008 was $23,200 -- a nearly $5,000 increase over five years. Two-thirds of students graduating from four-year schools owe money on student loans.
And while the unemployment rate for college graduates still trails the rate for high school graduates (4.9 percent versus 10.8 percent), the figure has more than doubled in less than two years.
"A four-year degree in business -- what's that get you?" asked Karl Christopher, a placement counselor at the Columbia Area Career Center vocational program. "A shift supervisor position at a store in the mall."
At Rock Bridge High School, one of Columbia's two high schools, 72 percent of the class of 2008 moved on to four-year colleges, with an additional 10 percent attending community college. That college attendance rate is consistent with national statistics.
Only 4 percent of Rock Bridge students chose technical training like the Oklahoma welding school where Hodges is headed.
Hodges has been set on a welding career since she was 13. She craves independence and has little patience for fellow students who seem to wind up in college more from a sense of obligation than anything else.
Sue Popkes doesn't hide her disappointment over her younger daughter's decision. At the same time, she realizes that Hodges might achieve more financial security than a college degree could ever provide.
Ohio University economics professor Richard Vedder blames the cultural notion of "credential inflation" for the stream of unqualified students into four-year colleges. His research has found that the number of new jobs requiring college degrees is less than the number of college graduates.