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Life without college

By Lou Dobbs

This week on "Lou Dobbs Tonight": Culture in Decline 6 p.m. ET, Monday-Friday

Student Apathy
Tuesday: Teens & Drugs
Wednesday: Teens & Sex
Thursday: Declining Science & Math Degrees
Friday: Out of Options
Lou Dobbs

(CNN) -- A new survey of young adults on their plans after high school finds they understand the limitations of life without a college degree, but often lack the money, motivation or guidance to pursue higher education.

The survey, conducted by the nonpartisan research group Public Agenda, also shows that most young people who forgo college find themselves falling into jobs by chance. Nearly half of the respondents who didn't attend college said their current job was "just a job to get by" and only 15 percent viewed their jobs as promising careers.

The decision not to attend college carries more significance in a shifting economy with fewer well-paying jobs available for less-skilled workers. Manufacturing jobs have been steadily declining, and in fact, the economy has lost more than 2.5 million manufacturing jobs over the past four years.

That not only represents 15 percent of total manufacturing jobs in this country, but the trend is growing as the United States continues to outsource factory jobs and sign often one-sided free trade agreements. And while service jobs have been increasing, many of those new jobs are in health and educational services, areas that require at least some post-high school training.

Even a job as a police officer -- once a good career for someone with only a high school degree -- is growing out of reach as police departments seek to recruit more college graduates, noted Jean Johnson, senior vice president and director of programs at Public Agenda.

"Lots of people aren't academically inclined and there are still lots of ways to earn a living," Johnson said. "But what you see in these young people is it's a very hit-or-miss road they're on."

The most recent available statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor show the unemployment rate for high school graduates with no college experience was 14 percent. The unemployment rate in 2003 for young people with college degrees, in contrast, was 7 percent.

While young people overwhelmingly agreed on the value of a college education, about half of those who didn't go on to college said they couldn't afford to go, had too many other responsibilities or wanted to start working to earn money. Others, however, said the most important reason for skipping college was that their grades and motivation were too low, their teachers hadn't prepared them well or their career goals did not require a college degree.

Most of the young people surveyed believe their financial situation will improve as they get older, and that eventually they will be better off than their parents. "If you look at statistics about their economic prospects, it's not really as promising," Johnson said. "Yet personally, they are optimistic."

But their reasons for optimism may diminish as these young people face the reality of a changing job market.

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