A teenage epiphany…

How long do you have to go to school to get a job good enough to buy a Corvette?



We used to drive by a certain used car lot fairly often a couple of years ago – my 14-year-old son and I. Right on the corner where we turned for home, the dealer had provocatively parked a glittering blue Corvette convertible, early – to mid- ’60s vintage.

After the umpteenth trip – and the umpteenth admiring exclamation from my son, an extraordinary event occurred: a teachable moment the like of which most parents can only dream. It came in a series of increasingly pregnant questions:

“Dad! How long would it take me to buy that Corvette if a got a job in the afternoon after school?”

“From now until you get out of high school and probably a few years afterward.”

His first reaction was disbelief. “Why? How much would it cost?”

Pulling an answer out of the air: “Probably $50,000 or so.”

Shocked silence, then: “How do people ever manage to buy a Corvette then?”

“Some people have the kind of jobs where they make a lot of money and can afford it.”

“How do you get that kind of job?”

“Go to college. Get educated. Get a degree.”

And then magic struck: the question that at a single stroke took the whole subject of college out of the abstract and opened this teenager’s mind to an epiphany: “How long do you have to go to college to get a good enough job to buy a Corvette?”

A half dozen years of occasional fatherly talk about going to college snap into sharp focus for a boy whose most serious thoughts in life to date had been about basketball, baseball, football, computer games, and more recently Corvettes.

“So I have to keep going to school even after high school? And make good grades?”

“Well, if you want to have a life, that’s about it. It’s either that or win the lottery, or go for American Idol, or live in a shanty on the edge of the dump. (That’s always been one of my favorite images for failure. Until now, it never seems to have registered.) You feelin’ lucky, or you want to do it the old-fashioned way?”

“You mean ‘earn it,’ I guess.” “Un-huh.”


As this 14-year-old’s verbal responses go, this denotes a rare mental state: thoughtful contemplation.

What follows is one father’s attempt to follow through on a teachable moment. The accompanying chart shows roughly what level of education produces what level of payoff in the job world. It’s approximate, but useful nonetheless. My 14-year-old actually spent several minutes checking it out – admittedly not the intense, total focus he brings to video games – but hey, it got his attention – a signal achievement.

In the years since that conversation, it hasn’t been a question of whether, but rather where to go to college – and what to major in and how to afford it.

If a similar moment doesn’t oblige by presenting itself to you and your young- to midteenager, try using the Corvette trick – for boys anyway. But gently, gently. Remember, beside the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, there’s one other powerful emotion at work on young lives at this age: the shock of reality.

How much schooling produces how much money?

If you don’t finish high school:

Sample job options: Approximate wage/salary range
Work in fast food restaurant $6/hour (12,000/yr.)
Work in food processing factory $7/hour (14,000/yr.)
Work on landscaping crew $8/hour (16,000/yr.)
Annual earnings range: $12,000-$16,000

Time needed to pay off a $50,000 Corvette: probably not possible on income from employment as unskilled worker.

If you get your high school diploma but go no further:

Sample job options:
Work as a truck driver $17/hour (34,000/yr.)
Work as a secretary in an office $12/hour (24,000/yr.)
Work as an aide in a nursing home $9/hour (18,000/yr.)
Annual earnings range: $18,000-$35,000

Time needed to pay off a $50,000 Corvette: 10 years (if you could get a 10-year loan), but payments still above $500 a month; long shot unless you’ve got a stash of cash to pay down or a dynamite trade-in

If you take vocational courses in high school and graduate from a vocational program after high school:

Sample job options:
Work as an automobile master mechanic* $30,000-50,000/year
Work as supervisor in business $35,000-50,000/year
Work as medical technician $25,000-40,000/year
Annual earnings range: $25,000-$50,000

Time needed to pay off a $50,000 Corvette: 10 years, if you could get a 10-year loan; less time than that if you can handle $600-800 a month payments—a serious stretch, unless you’ve got a bigtime trade-in or major savings you can tap. Better think pre-owned.

*In some hourly jobs like auto mechanic, skilled welder, etc. substantial amounts of overtime – usually paid at a time-and-ahalf rate – are not uncommon, increasing compensation by up to 50 percent.

If you go to college and get a bachelor’s degree:

Sample job options:
Work as a high school teacher/coach: $35,000-60,000/year.
Work as a lower- to mid-level manager in business: $40,000-70,000/year
Work as a registered nurse: $30,000-60,000/year.
Annual earnings range: $30,000-$70,000

Time needed to pay off a $50,000 Corvette: manageable with a 10-year loan, if you could get the loan; possible in 5 years, but it would be a serious strain on a family budget; a substantial down payment or nice car to trade in would bring it into a somewhat more comfortable range.

If you go to college and spend two to four extra years and get an advanced degree:

Sample job options:
Work as an attorney $50,000-130,000/year
Work as a child psychologist, private practice $40,000-125,000/year
Work as a college professor (full professor) $60,000-100,000/year
Annual salary range: $40,000-$130,000

Time needed to pay off a $50,000 Corvette: 3-5 years, or trade in a vehicle and pay the balance in cash if you’re above the mid-point in this pay range. No sweat; you can swing it. If you’re just starting out, might have to hold off until you’re well established.

Note on wage and salary estimates given: they don’t allow for the occasional individuals in any occupation who do exceptionally well. Examples: the landscaping hourly worker who establishes his own successful landscaping firm, parlaying a $7-anhour job into a million dollar plus operation that pays him a six-figure annual salary. Or the staff accountant with a bachelors degree who becomes the chief executive officer of a major corporation, whose compensation may hit seven figures.