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4-year degree should not be only path to success: Reich

Is college a giant waste of money?

A four-year college degree is the only gateway to the middle class and that should not be the case, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich told CNBC on Tuesday.

"Many of our young people should be able to have other routes to the middle class that are alternatives to a four-year liberal arts degree," he said in an interview with "Street Signs."

Reich, now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, first tackled the issue in his blog, noting that too many young people leave college mired in debt and without good jobs. Others drop out because they are unprepared for the curriculum.

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Instead, many who may not be suited for college could thrive in a "world-class technical and vocational educational system," he told CNBC.

University of California Berkeley
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"There are a lot of jobs that are out there that are technical jobs," Reich said. "These jobs pay quite well and there is a scarcity of good people to do them."

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While community colleges are doing a good job training some of these workers, he said businesses need to get more involved.

What's needed, Reich said, is for Americans to change their mindset about education and success.

One way to do that is to talk about what other countries, like Germany, are doing to provide opportunities for success, he said. Another is to present examples of successful people who have not completed a four-year degree.

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Reich also thinks parents need to do their part.

"Parents are sort of putting a brake on young people who would rather have a good vocational and technical education," he said.

—By CNBC's Michelle Fox