Is College Worth It? Here’s What to Consider

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Updated on Tuesday, July 10, 2018

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Rising tuition and fees at colleges may have children and parents alike questioning if college is worth the cost. On the one hand, many jobs may require a college degree and, on average, lifetime earnings could be higher for those who earn a degree. But bachelor’s degrees recipients also graduate with an average five-figure debt. It could be too high a cost to pay, particularly if you’re not certain that you want to work in a field or job that requires a degree.

Is college worth the cost?

There’s no simple answer to such a personal question, and there are many subjective questions to ask yourself before applying for college. But overall, there is data that points to the value of having a college degree.

  • Bachelor’s degree holders earned 61% more than high school graduates, after taxes, in 2015.
  • Those who get their bachelor’s degree in four years earn enough by the time they’re 34 to offset the cost of attending school, based on median earnings.
  • The unemployment rate for bachelor’s degree holders is generally about half what it is for high school graduates, among those 25 and older
  • Only 4% of bachelor’s degree holders lived in poverty versus 13% of high school graduates, among those 25 and older.

Earnings-related statistics clearly show that a college education could be worth it from an economic perspective. However, statistics don’t guarantee an individual’s outcome or experience. So, here are a few of the advantages and disadvantages of attending college to consider.

Advantages of attending college

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A degree could help you get a job

A college degree could help open doors and may be a requirement to start certain career paths. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in May 2016, nearly 37 percent of entry-level jobs required at least some secondary education.

The importance of a college degree may increase over time, as well. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce predicts that by 2020, about 65 percent of job openings (not only entry-level jobs) will require at least some college experience or an associate’s degree.

Having a degree could lead to higher lifetime earnings

As the College Board statistics showed, bachelor’s degree holders generally earn more money each year than high school graduates. Even if it takes some time to pay off student loans and offset the years that you were in school rather than working, the long-term earnings potential is higher for those with a college degree.

The U.S. Department of Education found, on average, college graduates will earn $1 million more during their lifetimes than high school graduates.

There could be other financial and personal benefits

In addition to a potentially higher income, bachelor’s degree holders are more likely to have employer-provided health insurance and access to employer-sponsored retirement plans than employees with only a high school diploma.

Having a college degree also correlates with more civic activity and healthy behavior, such as regularly exercising, volunteering and voting. College degree holders are also more likely to engage in educational activities with their children, such as reading and visiting cultural centers.

You can expand your personal and professional networks

There may not be hard numbers to back up the value of forming friendships and professional connections in college, but there is some truth behind the adage, “it’s not what you know but who you know.”

Hopefully, if you’ve spent years attending classes, “what you know” is important as well. But there is value in having strong connections with other college graduates and professors in your area of interest.

Drawbacks of attending college

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Earnings among degree holders can vary a lot depending on your career

Even among those with college degrees, there’s a large variation in income, depending on individuals’ jobs or career paths. The College Board found that by mid-career, the difference in college degree holders’ median earnings was as large as $46,000 a year. For example, an early childhood educator might earn $40,000 a year while someone with a computer science degree could earn $86,000.

Student loans could impact many areas of your life

Taking out student loans is a necessity for many college students. However, leaving college and entering the “real world” with students loans can impact graduates in many ways. A survey conducted by American Student Assistance in 2015 found that most students’ decision to purchase a home or car and their ability to save for retirement was affected by their debt. More than a third said it was difficult to afford daily necessities due to their loans.

Some people leave college with debt but no degree

Student loans could be seen as an investment in one’s future. Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily the case for students who take out loans to attend school but leave before earning a degree.

According to an analysis of federal data by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit focused on inequality and education, 3.9 million undergraduates with federal student loans dropped out of school from 2014 to 2016.

Students may drop out for various reasons, from having to deal with medical issues or financial troubles to getting a job offer that’s too good to pass up. Some may also return to school and finish their degree in the future. However, having to leave school or deciding college isn’t for you after taking out loans could set you back financially.

Is college worth it for you?

College isn’t a good fit for everyone, and being able to recognize that early on could save you a lot of time and money. To that end, here are a few questions you can ask yourself to help you determine if college is worth it for you.

Are you prepared for the cost?

Using the Department of Education’s net price calculator, or calculators on colleges’ websites, you can estimate your annual cost to attend different schools. Consider the four-year cost, how much you and your family can contribute and how much you may need to borrow in student loans.

Comparing your net cost at different schools could help you make an educated choice when deciding if college is worth the cost, and if it is, which school to attend.

Are you ready for the academic rigor?

The jump from high school to college can be difficult for those who had trouble keeping up with school work during high school or attended a high school that didn’t have especially demanding teachers. It could also be up to you to manage your time and find support and assistance, such as study groups or tutors, once you’re in college.

You don’t need to avoid college because it’s difficult. After all, challenges can be great learning opportunities. Acknowledge the academic expectations that you’ll face in college and ask yourself if you’re ready to put in the work.

Have you identified your career goals?

While students can switch majors once they enter college, knowing what you want to do before you begin could help you create a plan and finish college within four years.

If you’re unsure of your career goals but certain that you want to earn a bachelor’s degree, you might want to save money by satisfying some of your general education requirements at a local community college and then transferring to a four-year school.

Does your desired degree increase your earning potential?

If you have a specific major in mind, you may be able to research the average annual income of other people who graduated with the same major. The Center on Education and the Workforce’s The Economic Value of College Majors project could be a good place to start.

A proposed major doesn’t need to lead to riches to be worthwhile, but consider your overall cost, potential loans and how much you might earn after graduation. If your monthly loan payments will make it difficult to maintain a modest standard of living, the cost of college might outweigh the benefits.

Do you have a plan for repaying student loans?

A 2017 MagnifyMoney survey found that nearly half of recent college graduates regret not being more careful handling their debts. If you anticipate having to take out student loans, having a plan early on could help you manage the debt and pay as little as possible.

For example, the interest on unsubsidized student loans can accumulate while you’re at school, causing you to graduate with more debt than you took out. You may be able to avoid this by working and starting to repay your loans while you’re at school.

Will you make the most of your time at college?

You can address this question in different ways. Will you make the most of the educational opportunities, social events and experience of living away from home? There’s more to the college experience than receiving a degree and a potential earnings increase, and you should consider that as well when you’re trying to decide if going to college is worth it.

Alternatives to a traditional college education

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It may sometimes feel like a college degree is a new norm. However, while young adults today are more likely to have a college degree than past generations, you’re not alone if you decide to forgo college. You also don’t need a college degree to go into a well-paying field.

A Pew Research Center report shows only about 36 percent of millennial (ages 21 to 36) women had at least a college degree in 2017. Less than a third (29 percent) of men in the same age group had a degree.

In other words, more than six out of every 10 millennials today don’t have a bachelor’s degree.

If you feel like enrolling at a four-year institution isn’t the correct choice for you right now, here are a few alternatives to consider:

Attend a community college

Community colleges, also known as junior colleges, can provide educational opportunities at a much lower cost than four-year schools. You may be able to earn an associate’s degree or certification, or explore different fields of study while determining if you want to continue your academic studies. You may be able to transfer credits from community college toward later efforts to earn a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution.

Some community colleges also have bachelor’s degree programs, although they’re generally in specialized or technical fields. There are also a few places throughout the country where you can attend community college tuition-free.

Enroll in a technical college

A technical, vocational or career school education could set you on a path toward a career of your choosing. The programs can vary in nature and you may be able to get a degree, certification, license or diploma in a specific trade, such as cosmetology, auto mechanics or different healthcare professions. If you’re looking for hands-on training and skills that can help you land a job, a technical college could be a good route.

Become an apprentice

Somewhat similar to attending a technical school, an apprenticeship lets you get hands-on experience as you start a career. You’ll also get paid during your apprenticeship, which often lasts for one to six years, with pay increases depending on your experience.

Apprenticeships combine classroom and real-world training, and you may be able to earn college credits which you could apply toward an associate’s or bachelor’s degree later. Apprentices also receive a certification or credentials once they finish their training program, which they can use to continue their career.

You can choose an apprenticeship in different industries, including hospitality, construction, energy and technology. The U.S. Department of Labor has tools and resources for those interested in becoming an apprentice, along with a job board you can use to find local opportunities.

Applying won’t guarantee your admission, as you may need to interview, pass aptitude tests and, in some cases, have work experience. You could consider a pre-apprenticeship program at a technical school to increase your chances of getting an apprenticeship from your top-choice employer.

Join the military

Just like college, the military isn’t a good fit for everyone. However, military service does offer potentially valuable technical training along with professional development. It could also be a career path of its own or offer you financial assistance that you can use to pay for a technical school or degree-granting college or university.

Start your own business

Running a business isn’t necessarily as glamorous as it sounds. In some cases, you might wind up working long hours with little to show for it. Or, you could have to take out a loan to start the business or keep it running, and eventually find yourself in trouble if the business stops making money.

On the other hand, if it does work out, you’ll get to be your own boss. One day, you may even be able to step back and continue making money while you explore other interest or ventures.

Take a gap year

Some students decide to take a year off before starting at a four-year university. They might spend the year working to save money, try out several jobs to get ideas for what they want to study or travel if they can afford it. A gap year could be a good option if you need more time to explore or mature before heading to college.

However, if you’re planning on going to a four-year school after the gap year, you may want to apply while you’re still in “school mode.” It could be more difficult to take a standardized test and complete application requirements after taking time away from school. If you’re accepted into a college or university, the school may let you defer your start date and hold a spot for you until after you return from the gap year.

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