Is College Worth It? Experts Pick Sides
College once was a one-way ticket to a better financial life for the relatively few Americans who were fortunate enough to attend. But matriculation seems all but mandatory now if you want to keep pace in our increasingly competitive and well-educated workforce. The share of Americans aged 25 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree has increased sevenfold from 4.6% in 1940 to 32.5% in 2015, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. And college graduates earn nearly twice as much ($1,270 per week) as high-school grads with no college experience ($698 per week), according to fourth-quarter 2016 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Enrollment rates and expected earnings aren’t the only campus concerns trending higher, however. Tuition at nonprofit four-year colleges, both public and private, has gone up by more than 200% since 1976, according to College Board data. And the amount owed by the average graduate with student debt has increased by nearly 300% from $9,450 in 1993 to $37,172 in 2015.
So does a college education really still represent a safe investment in a young person’s future, or has it somehow morphed into a risky bet you’re better off not making? In search of insights from knowledgeable voices on all sides of this crucial issue, we posed the question of college’s current value to a panel of leading experts in the higher education and finance industries. You can find their bios and responses below.
College Is Worth It
- Students today are building their intellectual capacity to invent industries that don’t yet exist and to solve problems and pursue opportunities that have not yet been created. … College is not for everyone, but education is meant for all. And for most, especially first-generation students and those from underrepresented communities, investing in higher education is the surest pathway to prosperity. No matter your age or status, a college degree is attainable and valuable.
Cynthia Teniente-Matson // President, Texas A&M University-San Antonio
- Did you know that the life expectancy of those with at least a little college is twenty-five years longer than for those who have none? College graduates are also four times less likely to smoke, and much more likely to exercise consistently, maintain a healthy weight, and see a doctor regularly. Put these facts together with the higher income over a longer lifetime and college graduates benefit all of us — they pay higher taxes and use less of our government resources for unemployment and health care.
Tori Haring-Smith // President, Washington & Jefferson College
- Maybe you’ll never need to solve a differential equation or quote Shakespeare, but higher education will still serve you well. College teaches valuable critical thinking, communications and problem-solving skills. A recent survey found that employers consider these skills even more important than a potential hire’s subject of study.
Karen Misjak // Executive Director of Iowa College Aid
In fact, according to a 2014 report by the Pew Research Center, the disparities between those with a college education and without is greater than ever before. Degree holders are better positioned for higher incomes and more meaningful community engagement—and for better job stability in good and bad economic times.
That’s not to say that every higher-education institution represents a good fit for every student, or that every American must pursue a college degree. As the cost of tuition continues to rise, it is key for college-bound students and their parents (and for nontraditional students) to have a clear sense of what they want to achieve from college.
The right fit is important to meet learning and career goals, but a good plan for investing in a degree in 2017 also includes some flexibility. After all, students today are building their intellectual capacity to invent industries that don’t yet exist and to solve problems and pursue opportunities that have not yet been created.
Students considering an investment in higher education should ask many questions, seek helpful input and determine the best solution for their needs. There are also other factors to consider when determining a return on investment. For example, many universities have strong alumni networks and internship opportunities that can increase their value. If a student is looking for that entrée into the workforce or graduate school, innovation across the curriculum is key, and it pays to know about these programs and factor those experiences into the value equation.
Colleges and universities offer varying tuition and fee rates. Traditionally, private institutions are more expensive than private universities. Financial aid can help offset the cost of either.
In-state tuition at public universities tends to be lower for obtaining a four-year degree or graduate school. Community Colleges represent an affordable cost alternative for technical or workforce training and for general education requirements. Most community colleges have clear articulation pathways to their neighboring public universities. Private universities may have a higher “sticker price” but tend to have a much greater opportunity to provide scholarship options based on academic merit and/or financial need.
College is not for everyone, but education is meant for all. And for most, especially first-generation students and those from underrepresented communities, investing in higher education is the surest pathway to prosperity. No matter your age or status, a college degree is attainable and valuable.
There are several ways of defining “worth.” Do college graduates make more money over their lifetimes than do those without college degrees? Unquestionably, and this has never been truer than at this moment in history when job growth is strongest in the fields requiring high-level communication, technical, and problem-solving skills. In fact, annual earnings for college graduates are about 134% higher than for those without degrees, which equates to about $1 million over the average lifetime.
Does this mean that all college graduates will have six-figure incomes right after they graduate? No, of course not. My first job after college was as a retail salesperson and my husband’s was minding the town dump. Now I am a college president and he is a nationally recognized expert in academic IT. Studies show that those who do best over a lifetime are those with a broad-based, liberal education that prepares them for a lifetime of evolving careers and even for jobs that do not exist today.
Does this mean that college is the right choice for every person? No, of course not. Today’s economy is complex and needs individuals with different skills.
But there’s more to “worth” than measuring income. Did you also know that the life expectancy of those with at least a little college is twenty-five years longer than for those who have none? College graduates are also four times less likely to smoke, and much more likely to exercise consistently, maintain a healthy weight, and see a doctor regularly.
Put these facts together with the higher income over a longer lifetime and college graduates benefit all of us—they pay higher taxes and use less of our government resources for unemployment and health care.
No wonder a recent Gallup-Pew study of more than 30,000 people found that students with a strong college education were simply more satisfied with their work and happier in their lives.
Finally, let’s talk about the health of our democracy. Democracy is strong only when we have an educated public. How can citizens vote responsibly if they do not have the ability to judge different points of view, to sort opinion from fact, and to weigh conflicting pieces of evidence? How can they vote for policies or candidates with a full understanding of their positions? Our founding fathers knew this, and it is no less true today. College graduates are much more likely to vote than those without college. And if our citizens don’t vote, our democracy does not work.
So, is college worth it? After reading this, what do you think?
When it comes to earning potential, yes. College graduates simply earn more. In fact, weekly earnings for workers with bachelor’s degrees are almost twice the earnings of workers with only high school diplomas. Over a lifetime, this can translate to difference of more than a million dollars, and the gap is only getting wider.
When it comes to employability, yes.
You’re more likely to have a job if you go to college. The unemployment rate for college graduates is about half the rate for high school graduates. And the number of jobs for college graduates is growing, while the number of jobs for high school graduates is falling. More than 95 percent of the jobs created from 2010 to 2016 have required at least some college education.
When it comes to knowledge, yes.
Maybe you’ll never need to solve a differential equation or quote Shakespeare, but higher education will still serve you well. College teaches valuable critical thinking, communications and problem-solving skills. A recent survey found that employers consider these skills even more important than a potential hire’s subject of study.
When it comes to quality of life, yes.
In terms of finances, health and happiness, college graduates do better. The poverty rate for people with only a high school degree is nearly three times the rate for people with bachelor’s degrees. College graduates are less likely to smoke, be obese or be incarcerated. College graduates are also significantly more likely to be happy with their standard of living.
When it comes to your country and community, yes.
The benefits of higher education extend beyond you as an individual. The United States currently ranks 11th in percentage of citizens with a college education, and the country can’t meet projected economic demands unless it raises its college attainment levels. Closer to home, college graduates are more likely to be involved in their communities by voting and volunteering.
When it comes to your family, yes.
The benefits of higher education also extend beyond your generation. Children of college-educated parents are more likely to do well in school and less likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors such as smoking and binge drinking. More education on the part of parents is tied to higher standardized test scores for children. Finally, children of college graduates are more likely to graduate from college themselves, compared to other students with similar grades and test scores, so the cycle continues.
Gone are the days when a blue-collar salary was enough to survive, or when a high school diploma was a ticket to lifelong employment. Today’s workforce must combine expertise in an industry or career with soft skills such as leadership, effective communication and an interest in social change making. Effective employees must think critically and analytically, and commit to engaging in lifelong learning opportunities that ultimately will impact the world around them. It is exclusively on college campuses across the country where students can become well-rounded, employable and prepared for the challenges and opportunities of a changing economy.
While a college degree’s worth is unquestionable, the pathway to graduation is, unfortunately, not as well defined, and is often extremely costly and inaccessible to many students. High tuition costs keep talented students away from a college classroom, and some eventually give up their dreams of obtaining a degree beyond a high school diploma for fear of being saddled with heavy debt after graduation. Our economy simply cannot afford to lose professional talent to rising tuition costs.
Today, more than ever, academic leaders must think creatively about how to offer innovative and challenging programs for their students while keeping costs low. Whether it’s creating partnerships with local industries to assist in the learning process, or convincing legislators about the true worth of a college education, institutions of higher education must continue their work to improve college access and affordability. Our middle class is dependent on a workforce that is competitive and resilient, and it is at our nation’s colleges and universities where students will learn to be change makers.
Personally and professionally, college graduates—especially those from residential undergraduate programs—are more engaged in their work and their communities, and they even have considerably lower divorce rates.
Higher education is of infinite worth to the country: we need our doctors, lawyers, business leaders, innovators, engineers, artists, teachers and those from many other professions—just as we need technical schools and apprenticeships to produce skilled laborers such as electricians, plumbers, mechanics and others. The need for colleges and universities to serve the country will only increase, as more jobs, even factory jobs, require college educations to manage the technology and the acceleration of change.
College graduates have higher voting rates and are more active politically; they also contribute significantly more volunteer time to community organizations. The research of faculty at universities contributes to advances in science, engineering, technology and medicine—not to mention work in political science, sociology, law and psychology that advance our understanding of the world around us and address real problems in our communities and around the world.
But even if a college education contributes to personal happiness, provides a good living for a family and makes our country tick, is the cost just too much for most to afford?
Almost all families now receive financial aid, thanks, in part, to endowments and successful fundraising. While rising costs are a very real concern, the realities are often very different from the popular narrative.
At the University of Denver (DU), 84 percent of our undergraduate students receive aid, which means relatively few families pay the full “sticker price” of tuition. Financial aid brings down the average cost of a DU undergraduate education to $17,871 annually for tuition, and undergraduate students graduate with an average of $29,050 in debt. Seventy percent of our students graduate in five years, a much higher rate than public institutions.
Private residential colleges with the ability to provide the most aid also offer low faculty-student ratio and support for skills in community building, civic leadership and more. Students graduate not just with a degree but also with knowledge, skills and alumni connections that they will use throughout their lifetimes. DU, for instance, has a worldwide network of nearly 140,000 alumni to help students find internships and jobs, relocate and make friends.
A well-rounded education provides one with different ways of thinking and experiencing the world—from the sciences to the arts to the social sciences. As Hannah Arendt once said, education is about empowering our young people to set the world “anew” and “aright.”
And by “college,” I mean any education or training after high school – whether that’s a certificate program, an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, something more or something different.
The bottom line is, education is the key to a better and more prosperous life and it’s the most powerful tool we have to end generational poverty and reverse social inequities.
But too many Americans don’t have the education and training they need now and that will be required in the future for the new workplace. Continuing education or training after high school isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity.
The U.S. economy has added 11.5 million net new jobs for workers with postsecondary education since 2011, but only 80,000 for those with a high school diploma or less. As a result, recovery from the Great Recession has not been possible for the millions of Americans who lack postsecondary education and have limited options for employment and economic security.
Automation and technology are changing the face of the American workforce. The New York Times reports that “nearly nine in 10 jobs that disappeared since 2000 were lost to automation in the decades-long march to an information-driven economy, not to workers in other countries.”
Meanwhile, a White House report, Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence, says AI will mostly hurt low-paid workers, and “could also boost the wage gap between less-educated and more-educated workers, fueling economic inequality.”
In fact, over a person’s working lifetime, high school graduates can expect, on average, to earn $1.2 million, while those with a bachelor's degree will earn $2.1 million; and people with a master's degree will earn $2.5 million, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report, The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings.
That’s the economic revolution we live in. That’s the reality we must prepare for. Vermont and the nation will need skilled workers who will create opportunity for themselves and for the country. In nearly all cases, that means continuing education and training after high school.
To meet these employment and economic development imperatives, a diverse group of Vermont stakeholders has come together to create the 70x2025vt.org partnership to set the goal of ensuring that—by the year 2025—at least 70 percent of working-age Vermonters will achieve a degree or a credential of value (up from the current 45.3 percent).
Is 70 percent by the year 2025 doable? We think so, and that’s how important we think “college” is.
All of these life outcomes and enhancements (and more) are correlated to having a college degree. And, although there is no guarantee that every college graduate will enjoy these positive outcomes, there is enough evidence to suggest that investing four years is time well spent.
In addition to pondering the investment of personal time and effort, one might reasonably ask, does the financial investment pay off? Again, typically yes. Multiple studies have demonstrated that college degree holders can expect, on average, to make $500,000 more than other workers during their lifetime. However, families and individuals should think carefully about how to manage debt when borrowing for an education. While the average student debt is $31,000 (the price of a midrange automobile), no one wants to be saddled with payments over many years. And, there are ways to control your debt load.
- Complete your degree in four years or less – this is the best way of keeping costs down.
- Take into account the total costs of college (housing, transportation, etc.) and be frugal. Use the loan for tuition and fees – not for new cars, travel, or other lifestyle enhancements.
- Research the placement information for the school and degree in which you are interested to maximize your chance of working in your preferred field as early as possible after graduation.
- Get a job while in school. Student workers finish their degree earlier and have more success.
College is especially important for low-income students and students of color, who too often have been left behind in our education system and in society at large. Families of color, in particular, know the value of a college education and want it for their children. In a 2016 survey, 86 percent of Hispanic parents and 79 percent of Black parents of school-age children felt that earning a college degree was either extremely important or very important to their children’s future, compared to 67 percent of white parents. Indeed, low-income, black, and brown families rarely question the value of a degree – only how to achieve it.
What’s more, the question of “worth” seldom comes up in public discourse with regard to well-resourced students – students who know from day one that they will attend college, students whose only question is where they will attend, not if. But college costs, deficiencies in our financial aid system, and inequities in society’s expectations for students of limited means lead some to question the value of college for those who must scrimp, save, borrow, and work long hours to pay their way.
Certainly some programs and some colleges do not offer students the education they deserve in return for their investment of time, money, and hard work, which is why we must hold colleges accountable for providing a valuable education that leads to success in the workforce. Students need quality information on measures like debt, earnings and repayment rates so they can choose institutions that will provide a worthwhile return on their investment.
Yes, college is worth it. But the onus is on policymakers to ensure students – especially low-income students, students of color, and other historically disadvantaged students – have access to affordable, quality college options and reliable data to inform choices. Perhaps most important, policymakers, practitioners, and all who interact with students must set high expectations for students, reaffirming students’ own beliefs that college is indeed one of the greatest, most valuable, and most worthwhile investments they can make.
With smart college selection and financing choices, a college education is always worth it. Post-secondary education leads to higher lifetime earnings and lower unemployment rates, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Further, we know that 60% of the jobs in 2020 will require at least some form a post-secondary credential.
However, with poorly thought-out choices or lack of education about the college decision and financial aid process, students may find themselves on the losing end of their return on college investment. The decisions made early in a student’s college and career path, especially around financing, may change the trajectory of later life decisions such as graduate school enrollment, home purchases, and having children.
Students must consider how these initial college selection and financing decisions will impact their financial future. College location, intended major, and net college costs all need to be factored. Is a 4-year on-campus program an amazing educational opportunity and experience? Yes, it can be. But, many students will be just as successful by choosing to live at home and attend a nearby community or technical college, which may also save that student thousands of dollars.
There are numerous financial aid programs around the country that can help students finance the cost of higher education and make several of those decisions easier. From high school dual-enrollment programs that lower the overall cost and time to degree completion - to grants for the pursuit of a technical education in a high-demand career field that cover 100% of tuition - to programs that grant returning adult students credit for prior learning experiences, programs exist that definitely make college a smart option and value for those students that participate.
To ensure that students make the smart decisions to maximize their return on investment, financial literacy education around these topics needs to be promoted even more than it already is. Initiatives such as FAFSA simplification and reform and FAFSA completion are necessary and critical to making college financing available to more students so that it becomes “worth it” to more students – and so that we ultimately have the educated workforce that will be required to meet the job demands of the future.
Importantly, college continues to be the major gateway for intergenerational upward mobility, and thus can have a profound impact on the socioeconomic status of the next generation. In a recent New York Times study, Babson College, for example, ranked second among 71 colleges in terms of the percentage of its enrolled students whose families earned less than $20,000 per year. Babson was also ranked second in the share of children who were from the bottom fifth of incomes as students and moved to the top fifths as adults.
The return on investment for higher education is profound not only for individuals, but for society broadly. Many indicators suggest that societies with a higher percentage of university graduates benefit from more innovation and better standards of living. Therefore, the investments we make as a society in higher education have collective rewards going far beyond what can be measured for any one individual.
Indeed, access to higher education for the vast majority of the population (referred to as massification of higher education) was central to the rise of the U.S. as an economic powerhouse in the post-World War II era. Significant investments in higher education made in that era continue to benefit the U.S. in countless ways. To cite one example: the U.S. continues to be the top destination in the world for international students. According to NAFSA, international students contributed approximately $33 billion to the U.S. economy in the 2015-2016 academic year.
Of course, we must reckon with the decline of public support for higher education, which unfortunately means that college is increasingly seen as a private resource and not a public good. The rise of for-profit institutions, which make dubious claims about the impact of their degree (e.g., Trump University), has resulted from this very dynamic. Prospective students and families must be vigilant, carefully examining the quality of education at institutions they are considering. And certainly all potential students must factor their own effort into the equation, because what they put into their college education has much to do with what they get out of it. In addition, the main factor in whether or not college is worth it will be dependent on what the individual student brings to it and how hard that individual works to get the most out of it.
Post-secondary education provides a means of increased income. The Pew Research Center found those with a four-year degree earned 62% more than those with a high school degree. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows college graduates are less likely to be jobless. Additionally, college graduates tend to be healthier, more engaged in their communities and have lower divorce rates. Finally, those with a college degree often have more job satisfaction than those who have no post-secondary education.
A college education provides skills that employers want. Colleges teach students to think critically, how to communicate effectively and participate in-group projects.
Beyond the classroom, college students experience a microcosm of the world right in their college neighborhood. College can be a virtual United Nations of diversity as students come in contact with those of different cultures, faith backgrounds and world views, and the college setting provides a structured place to process this diversity. Employers value applicants who have experiences with diverse groups of individuals from those students interacting with diverse individuals on their home campuses or through a study abroad program.
From a career development perspective, college helps students develop their identities, which is crucial to determining a career path. Experiences while in college help students learn about who they are and what they value, which is imperative to choosing the best-fit career path. There are more resources in college to help with the career decision-making process then there are in high school. Colleges at all levels have career services offices that help students understand their interests, personality, skills and values and how those relate to work. The K-12 system has so many other requirements and demands to fulfill that career development is not always addressed effectively.
Is a college worth it? It is if you want to be more financially secure, less likely to be jobless and have more job satisfaction.
With the cost of continuing education approaching stratospheric levels, most college students today have little choice but to assume some level of debt to fund the pursuit of their degrees. Kept in check, this isn’t a bad thing, in my opinion. People tend to value things more when they have skin in the game. Students are no different. And there are strategies for containing costs—from completing two years of Gen Ed credits at a community college while still living at home to pursuing studies at a state university. This offers the further advantage of beginning to “figure out what I want to be when I grow up” so that the second two years of college can really support pursuit of a degree that aligns with interests and innate abilities (and, ideally, a need in the marketplace that links to employment opportunity).
As both a professor of a financial wellness course for traditional undergraduate students at a small university and a career strategist/resume writer in private practice for more than 30 years, I see the value of college from two perspectives. The majority—but not all—of my students suffer unknowingly from a lack of financial education until they immerse themselves in their classwork. Then they realize all that they didn’t know they didn’t know. It gives a meaning to the loans they’ve undertaken to pursue their degrees and they begin to gain a foothold on budgeting, saving, and how this links to the work they’ll engage in upon graduation.
Putting on my career practitioner’s hat, when a resume client presents with a newly minted degree, there is hope, optimism, and confidence—regardless of where the economy happens to be at that moment—and this is reflected in their demeanor as they network, engage and interview. When compared with my more seasoned clients—those in their 40s, 50s, and 60s—I see one particular thread echoed time and again: Many of those older folks who did not earn a degree carry throughout their lives a perceived stigma and worry every time they change jobs. It is accompanied by their reduced earning power over the course of their careers.
Is college worth it? Absolutely.
But this is neither the only nor the best way to think about “value,” which is a correlate to “worth.” There are many ways to assess “worth,” even from the limited vantage point of the individual, for whom the benefits of a college education need not be measured by income alone, but rather by personal growth, the joy of intellectual activity, or the ability to do things that require skills learned in college.
Under the umbrella of our shared life—or, how to determine the worth of a college education to the public—we might calculate the value to our national economy of a more educated work force, or the value to civic culture of an educated citizenry, whether as voters or as participants in any community activity whose benefits accrue to everyone.
The central distinction lies in whether we consider higher education as a public or merely a private good. Tables and charts that compare tuition with average earnings at different levels of education can neither truly measure nor adequately communicate the value of an educated populace. A nation where millions of voters and uncounted public officials are unable to appreciate the complex relationship between jobs, technology, trade, and outsourcing, stands to benefit from more pervasive higher education. A nation whose leadership demonstrates little knowledge of a national hero such as Frederick Douglass (never mind when he lived), of its own place in the American political tradition or America’s place in the world, would benefit from a larger public investment in higher education. A nation that saw millions of its voters base fundamental decisions on “fake news” would benefit from an electorate with the critical thinking skills that higher education provides.
Education should never be regarded as merely a tool for individual advancement. It is also a public instrument to promote democratic citizenship and informed participation in a market economy. The system works better for all of us if more people can recognize a logical fallacy, read a data table, understand the text and context of the Constitution, and decipher debates surrounding the causes of the Great Depression, the legacy of Jim Crow, or the formation and history of NATO.
An individual and his family might question whether or not college is “worth it.” But to the community, the nation, and the globe where that individual will develop, play, work, purchase, and vote, the question is whether underspending on higher education will result in an electorate and a political leadership insufficiently educated to recognize the value of an educated work force and citizenry. The downward spiral begun by failing to accurately calculate that cost would eventually devastate our economy, impoverish community life, and endanger democracy.
The Indiana College Value Index provides college value profiles for all Indiana public college campuses, focusing on three areas aligned to the state’s strategic plan for higher education, called Reaching Higher, Delivering Value: Completion, Competency and Career. The index combines quantitative data from the Commission’s College Completion Report and Return on Investment Report with qualitative information from the Gallup-Indiana Alumni Survey as well as examples provided by the colleges.
Indiana college graduates reported higher levels of well-being compared to national averages in all surveyed categories. Indiana outperformed the national average for on-time completion by over two percentage points as well as for extended (six-year) completion by nearly five percentage points. Finally, Indiana college students are less likely to take out student loans than their peers (61 percent in Indiana compared to 69 percent nationally).
Attending college also pays financially and increases overall well-being. Within five years, graduates from over 85 percent of Indiana degree programs typically earn salaries that exceed the state median ($32,500). Furthermore, more than half of Indiana college graduates indicate they are “thriving” in four out of five measures of well-being: purpose, community, financial and social.
In addition to being a smart financial move, attending college also provides graduates with the means to meet lifetime goals and the opportunity to thrive in life. The majority of college alumni, both in Indiana and nationwide, report they are motivated to achieve their goals and that they are surrounded by supportive people.
It’s safe to say that by any meaningful measure, higher education has never been more essential: incomes are higher, job security is greater, health is better and civic engagement is stronger for college graduates than for those lacking education beyond high school.
College Is Not Always Worth It
- I attended college in a simpler time when savings, summer employment, a part-time job in school could largely pay for a college education without requiring large loans. Those financial circumstances provided some leeway on having to make early career decisions. Unfortunately, that is rarely true anymore and students need to carefully consider their likely career and potential earnings before making a college decision.
Bruce Wagner // Chief Executive Officer, Finance Authority of Maine
- College indeed is a wise choice for some people but not for as many as who attend. So think hard about who you are and where you're most likely to thrive and then, not as a lemming but with a free mind, decide what's right for you--even if you have to tell your college-bound friends you're deferring attending college. After their initial shock, you may be able to convince them that you're the smart one.
Marty Nemko // Author of “The Best of Marty Nemko”
The answer to this question may be a simple “no” for most people seeking careers in the trades. These are venerable careers that require a skill set that most colleges won’t provide. Trade professionals are more likely to benefit from training that is specific to their industry, and can provide needed credentials. I hasten to add that this post-secondary education may not be college, but it is still extremely valuable.
For those planning careers that require a college degree, the answer to the question is “yes” if you understand that your investment into college still requires careful thought and good decisions. What do you plan to do with your degree? What are the expected earnings? How much money will you have to borrow? Can your expected earnings support the school loans? Do you have school options that keep the expected outlay proportionate to your career earning potential?
I attended college in a simpler time when savings, summer employment, a part-time job in school could largely pay for a college education without requiring large loans. Those financial circumstances provided some leeway on having to make early career decisions. Unfortunately, that is rarely true anymore and students need to carefully consider their likely career and potential earnings before making a college decision.
But for the many students who consider college the only sensible option for avoiding second-class careers and third-class citizenship, there are facts they should know, which colleges are loathe to reveal.
First, the college-trumpeted statistic that college graduates earn a million dollars more over their lifetime is grossly misleading. The pool of college attendees is brighter, more motivated, and has more family connections than the pool of the non-college bound. You could lock the college-bound in a closet for our years and they'd earn dramatically more than would the pool of the not-college bound. The second reason the million-dollar statistic is invalid is that it's retrospective. To be able to cite lifetime earnings, that statistic has to be based on students many decades ago. That was a time when a far smaller percentage of high school graduates went to college. For example, in 1970, only 40% went. Now it's 70%. With degree-holders so common now, the income advantage has dwindled.
Of course, one may want to attend college not just to increase income potential but to learn. Alas, in the definitive study of students learning at college, Academically Adrift, 45% of students gained little or nothing in the measured areas of writing and critical thinking over their four years of college.
That brings me to the term "four-year" college. Only about 40% of college freshmen graduate in four years, only 60 percent even if given six years. And if you graduated from high school in the bottom 40% of your high school class, you have only a 25% chance of graduating college even if given 8 1/2 years.
But what about the vaunted social life, the lifetime friendships that you may make. Of course, that's possible, but do remember that young adults, away from parents' watchful eye for the first time and crammed together two- or three to a tiny room, often creates an unhappy synergy that results in more substance abuse, less studying, more unprotected sex, than would occur if the student spent another year or two maturing and living with parents, away from that hothouse of hormones and cries of "Free at last!"
But aren't the other post-high-school options even worse? As asserted at the outset, it depends on the student. Some students would grow far more with the structure and excellent career training provided in the military. And instead of paying tens of thousands, often hundreds of thousands of dollars and giving four to six years of the best years of your life on college, the military pays you. Other would-be college attendees, those interested in running their own business, might be wise to consider an internship or low-level job at the elbow of a successful and ethical small business owner. Still others, who enjoy working with concrete things and with their hands and who learn better from one-on-one practical guidance than from academic classes, might sign up for an apprenticeship. They exist in everything from chef to robot technician.
Finally, there's the community college option. Perhaps surprising, teaching quality is generally superior there because faculty is hired largely on how well they teach. In contrast, the more prestigious the university, the more likely a professor is hired and promoted based on their research. The skills and motivations to be a top researcher are generally inversely correlated with those required to be an effective teacher of undergraduates. And of course, community colleges generally offer a massive cost saving compared with universities, even public ones.
You may recall The Occupy movement. One of its key issues was the mammoth student debt. Universities' marketing machines show pictures of well-employed graduates but aren't as eager to point out the large percentage of students who, not only don't graduate, but The Atlantic reported that 53% of college graduates under age 25 are doing a job they could have gotten straight out of high school. Instead, they're buried by a mountain of student debt. And thanks to the prodigious higher-education lobby, students loans are among the only ones that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.
College indeed is a wise choice for some people but not for as many as who attend. So think hard about who you are and where you're most likely to thrive and then, not as a lemming but with a free mind, decide what's right for you--even if you have to tell your college-bound friends you're deferring attending college. After their initial shock, you may be able to convince them that you're the smart one.
Examining the value of a college education is important, but it goes far beyond employment statistics and the likely return on your investment. Your future job is more than subsistence. Your job is where you’ll spend a majority of your time, energy and effort. Ideally, you want your time, energy and effort to be towards something that you enjoy doing and that pays the bills.
To understand whether college is a wise investment for you, take stock of what you want to do. This is often difficult for people fresh out of high school, but not only is college one of the biggest financial investments you can make, it’s your life. Do some research. There are a ton of free online resources that help you translate your personality, preferences and interests into job titles. Truity is a good site if you know your Myers-Briggs type (just google “free MBTI” to take a free version of the assessment). O*Net is another. Truity includes some career videos where you learn what people do on a day-to-day basis. This is important because you don’t just want a job that sounds good or pays well. You want a job that you’ll enjoy on day-to-day.
The financial and physical costs of work that doesn’t fit you is pretty astounding, so look things up online, talk to people, and choose something that’s a good fit for your personality, preferences, values, and skills. You might want a list of 3-5 career possibilities so you can compare the financial value of each.
In conjunction with this, you’ll also want to think about the life that you want. Where do you want to live? House, apartment, condo, other? What kind of leisure activities do you want to do? Cost these things out. A site like Numbeo can help you calculate the cost of living in different cities. How much money would you need per month to live the type of life you want to? Multiple that number by 12 and you have your desired annual salary.
When you are on Truity or O*Net, you’ll notice that they provide information about training and pay. This is where you get your reality check. Does the pay match or exceed your desired annual salary? What kind of training is required? Is college the best way to get that training or are there other options? Keep exploring your options until you find a future you can get excited about. Although this process isn’t easy, by taking a good look at what you want for yourself in the future, you’ll be able to determine if college is a worthy investment for you.
When it comes to attending college, however, my thoughts are a bit more complex. As a career development professional, I know that a college degree will be worth it as long as the student has reflected on the degree she is interested in and explored how it aligns with her values and strengths. If a student decides to go to college because someone has told her she has to or she won’t find a good job, the outcome might be a realization that going to college was not worth it. In fact, the student might not even finish her degree, believing that college is not for her.
Even if the student completes her degree and does find a well-paid job, if it’s not what she is excited to do, the experience will not be worth it. The value of the degree is often measured in the salary the student can secure after obtaining the degree. The more one makes, the more the degree is worth it and the happier the person is, correct? Not quite. As Sir Ken Robinson points out in The Element, it is when talent and passion intersect that a person becomes her true self, performs at her best, and achieves the most.
In summary, the benefits, both material and otherwise, of obtaining a college degree are well known and frequently discussed. What is often left out, however, is the challenging process of selecting a degree that aligns with a person’s strengths, values and interests. My hope is that when we discuss whether college is worth it, we always do it in the context of an individual and her personal and professional goals.
College Is Not Worth It
None of the experts we consulted believe college is always a bad idea for everybody. But if you think it is, tell us why in the comments section.
Image: sharonscribbles / iStock.
Was this article helpful?