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 not-for-profit best known for its college entrance exam. “The reality is, they may not be ready for college.”

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.

And while the unemployment rate for college graduates still trails the rate for high school graduates (4.9 percent versus 10.8 percent), the college 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.”

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.

Margaret Spellings, former federal education secretary under George W. Bush, remains a strong proponent of increased college access. She points to research showing that college graduates will on average earn $1 million more over a lifetime than those with only high school degrees.

“It is crucial to the success of our country and to us as individuals to graduate more students from college,” she said at a National Press Club forum earlier this year. “We Americans greatly believe that education is the great equalizer.”

Scaglione suggested that nothing short of a new definition for educational success is needed to diminish the public bias toward four-year degrees. He advocates “certification as the new education currency — documentation of skills as opposed to mastering curriculum.”

“Our national system is, ‘Do you have a degree or not?’ ” he said. “That doesn’t really measure if you have skills.”