Some estimates say Americans owe $1 trillion in student loans.

Conventional wisdom used to be that a bachelor's degree was the pathway to success.  But the economy of the future paints a different portrait, one that's much less expensive but will have good paying jobs.

"Without a doubt, I think things are changing," Jim Poythress with Virginia Western says.

"Not everybody has to have a four year degree," adds Ashley Farmer, a senior at Lord Botetourt High School.

"We do offer these options that are really strong," said Carole Graham, the Dean of Health Sciences at Virginia Western.

It used to be that technical school and community college were for the students who weren't prepared to handle the rigors of a four-year school, couldn't afford it, or didn't think they needed it.


"It's a whole lot smarter," Joe Harden, the principal of the Botetourt Technical Education Center, or BTEC.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that 60 percent of the jobs of the future will require more than a high school diploma but not quite a bachelor's degree.

So when you tell Joe Harden that kids today need a bachelor's to succeed, he says, "That's not necessarily true."

These are the jobs of the future: auto-mechanics, health care professionals, machine operators and welders.

With the proper certificates and an associates degree, the men and women who learn these trades can make between $25,000 and $75,000 a year.

"We have companies calling us every week wanting to know if we have any welders because they can't find them," said Joe Harden.

The kids who come through these technical schools, usually leave with a certificate that puts them well on a path to work or to further their skills at a community college.

It's the path Lord Botetourt senior Ashley Farmer has chosen.

Her plan is to work part time at a salon while she gets a business degree at Virginia Western.

We asked her why the business degree was so important, even though she already has a job lined up.

"Because when I'm, hopefully I'm going to have a salon, I'm going to need to know the money."

Ashley is getting her Virginia cosmetology license for free at BTEC.

As for that business degree, it will be somewhere between $11,000 and absolutely free because of Virginia Western's Community College Access Program, or CCAP

Because of BTEC and CCAP, it's conceivable that Ashley Farmer could receive her cosmetology certificate and Business Associates without paying for anything but books.

Taking this increasingly popular path not only helps get a good-paying job, but student loans aren't as suffocating.

Students at Virginia Western can either get a job out of school or be the 33% who finish their degrees at a four year school.

"If they really work hard can make much more than a lot of college graduates ever will," Joe Harden said.

"There's a lot of value added at this institution and it saves mom and dad and the student a lot of money and a lot of time," Jim Poythress said.

Poythress is the Vice President of workforce development at Virginia Western.  He says if the new construction on campus doesn't tell you the school is growing, the investments inside the classrooms will; a new mechatronics lab, the newest medical technology in the health science classrooms, etc.

"We need our young people to be thinking about the fact that they need the sciences, they need the math, and they need to apply themselves so they can be successful in those types of courses," Poythress said.

Take, for example, Virginia Western's linear accelerator.

It's a machine you'd find in a cancer center.