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YouTube career or college? The new question facing teens

What happens when teens actually do hit YouTube stardom and are faced with the choice of college?
PewDiePie Signs Copies Of His New Book \"This Book Loves You\"
PewDiePie signs copies of his new book "This Book Loves You" at Barnes and Noble Union Square on Oct. 29, 2015 in New York City.John Lamparski / Getty Images file

Ask any tween or teen what they want to be when they grow up and you may get some of the typical answers: athlete, veterinarian, and police officer. But one answer that you wouldn’t have heard 20 years ago is “YouTube star.”

With YouTube stars like Felix Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie, making more than $12 million a year playing video games on their YouTube channel, it’s no wonder that kids think it’s the coolest job. A recent survey by British firm First Choice revealed that 34 percent of kids age 6-17 would like to be a YouTube personality, while one in five wished to start their own channel.

“I want to be a YouTube star because you get to play a lot of games and you make a lot of money,” said 12-year-old Nathan Turner from Ellwood City, Pennsylvania.

Ten-year-old Joe O’Gara agrees. “If people like you a lot, then they will give you money for like ads and stuff,” said O'Gara, from Ardmore, Pennsylvania.

But how safe and lasting is a career for a YouTube star? The cards are stacked against most people vying for that kind of income and stardom. In fact, 96.5 percent of all of those trying to become YouTubers won’t make more than $16,800 per year, according to an analysis by Mathias Bärtl, a professor at Offenburg University. In order to make a decent living, a YouTuber would have to receive tens of millions of views per month, according to his research.

But what happens when they actually do hit YouTube stardom and are faced with the choice of college?

That’s what Noah Taitano and Ryan Burton, aka Noah Boat and Rhino, of YouTube channel “Love Live Serve” faced in 2015. They achieved what many teens have only dreamed of: 3 million followers, 40 million average views per month, and income of more than six figures per year in ad revenue and brand deals.

However, after high school graduation, they faced a dilemma: go to college or choose the path of full-time YouTube stars.

Their parents pushed them into going to college because they wanted them to have a backup plan, although Taitano and Burton would rather be focusing on their YouTube videos full time. Friends since elementary school, they enrolled in Drexel University’s film and video program, and take every class together. But managing both class work and YouTube channel comes at a cost.

“Sometimes we have to let the grades sacrifice, which means putting in a little bit less effort than the teachers probably expect from us,” Taitano told NBC News. “That way we can spend more time doing the videos we know are going to get us instant feedback and we get paid for.”

From thinking up ideas to writing, shooting, and editing, the duo estimates they spend about over 50 hours a week working on their YouTube channel. And they said they need to put in the effort now, since the lifespan of a YouTuber blasting inappropriate songs in the library (20M views) and doing impressions of Drake singing (10M views) isn’t forever.

“I think Noah and I go until we are 30, I would say maybe even 32,” Burton projected. “The lifespan of a YouTuber is very short if you don’t play your cards right and if you’re not smart and you don’t have a good work ethic, because you can fall off pretty quickly if your fans get tired of you.”

Damian Salas, Assistant Dean of Drexel University’s Entrepreneurship Programs, said he has seen a few students come in to the school with income-producing YouTube channels. Salas doesn’t see a career on YouTube as a passing fad; in fact he sees it as a legitimate business, but still believes a college degree is necessary.

“There’s the business side of the YouTube model that students need to have more education about,” Salas told NBC News. “Sure, you can create a YouTube channel, but to grow the YouTube channel, to scale it, and to really understand all the aspects of having a business that is centered around a YouTube channel is something that students and individuals need to understand.”

Taitano and Burton believe that YouTube is not for everyone and that stars-cum-students really need to be sure they can handle the workload.

“Noah and I spent two years working every single day making videos that made no money,” Burton told NBC News. “So if you think you are going to hop on and make a lot of money really quickly — it’s just not realistic.”