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If you’re in high school, guidance counselors, teachers and other well-meaning adults have likely told you—repeatedly—that you need to attend college to earn a good living. But is a college degree worth it?
The cost of attending college has increased substantially since your parents were in school. Over the past decade, costs increased by over 25%, and most college graduates leave school with significant amounts of student loan debt.
However, a bachelor’s degree can still pay off in the long run. Here is what you need to consider when deciding if college is right for you.
How Much Does College Cost?
If you’re planning on attending college, be prepared for sticker shock.
The College Board reported that the average total cost of attending a public school for in-state students is $27,330 per year, while the total cost of attendance at private universities averages $55,800 per year.
If you graduate within four years, that means your degree would cost between $109,320 and $223,200, depending on which type of school you attend.
Even if you qualify for financial aid, including scholarships and grants, that price tag can be staggering. Before paying your enrollment fees, make sure you ask yourself, “Is college worth it for me?”
Why Is College Worth It? 3 Reasons to Consider
For many people, college is well worth the expense. Not only do you gain valuable life experience and make lifelong connections, but a college degree also offers the following advantages:
1. College Graduates Earn More Than Non-Graduates
Despite the rising cost of post-secondary education, a college degree still pays off for the majority of graduates. On average, those with a bachelor’s degree earn significantly more than their peers with only a high school diploma.
Just how much more? The median salary for workers with high school diplomas is $38,792, and they have an average unemployment rate of 3.7% as of 2019, according to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by Northeastern University. By contrast, the median salary for workers with bachelor’s degrees is $64,896, and their unemployment rate is just 2.2% on average.
Over the course of their careers, college graduates can earn hundreds of thousands more than those who don’t attend college.
2. The Majority of Jobs Require College Education
In past generations, a college education wasn’t necessary to earn a middle-class income. According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, two-thirds of jobs required a high school diploma or less before the 1980s.
That’s no longer the case. Georgetown University predicts that 70% of all jobs will require some college education by 2027.
Without higher education on your resume, it may be more difficult to find a high-paying job, and competition for available opportunities will be fierce.
3. College Graduates Are More Likely to Have Health Insurance
With skyrocketing healthcare costs, having quality health insurance is essential for your well-being. However, purchasing health insurance on your own can be prohibitively expensive. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the benchmark premium for single-person policies purchased through the Health Insurance Marketplace is $462 per month or $5,544 per year.
What does that have to do with college? You may not realize it, but there is a significant correlation between college education and healthcare coverage.
College graduates are far more likely than high school graduates to have employer-provided coverage, offsetting their healthcare costs. The College Board found that 64% of workers with bachelor’s degrees and 70% of workers with advanced degrees had employer-provided coverage, while employer plans covered just 52% of high school graduates.
3 Reasons Why College Is Not Worth It
While a four-year degree can be valuable for many students, a bachelor’s degree isn’t necessary for everyone. Before attending college, make sure you consider the following drawbacks:
1. You Likely Will Graduate With Student Loan Debt
Because college costs have increased so much, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to cover the entire cost out of your savings or earnings from a part-time job; instead, you’ll probably have to use student loans to cover at least some of the expense. According to The Institute for College Access and Success, 62% of 2019 college graduates left school with student loan debt, with an average balance of $28,950.
Depending on your student loan repayment plan, you could be in debt for 10 to 30 years. Thanks to your minimum monthly payments, you may feel pressure to put off other financial goals, like saving for retirement or buying a home.
2. High-Paying Jobs Aren’t Guaranteed
While a college degree is often promoted as a path to prosperity, it can be tougher than you’d expect on the job market.
Especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic—which caused tens of millions of people to file unemployment claims in 2020—finding a well paying job after graduation may be difficult.
The average starting salary for college graduates right out of school is about $51,000, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. While that’s a comfortable income for most, many graduates will earn less than that. And if you have hefty student loan debt that exceeds your income, you may struggle to make ends meet.
3. It Can Take More Than Four Years to Graduate
When it comes to getting a bachelor’s degree, you’ll probably anticipate graduating within four years. However, that may not be realistic. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that just 58% of students who enrolled in college in 2012 earned a degree within six years. The rest of the students were either still in school or dropped out.
For every additional year you’re in school, you rack up additional expenses and likely will need to take on more student loan debt to pay for your education. Taking six years or more to graduate can cause you to leave school with even more debt, and it may be difficult to dig yourself out.
Alternatives to College
Is a college degree worth it? Not for everyone. If you decide that attending a four-year school isn’t the right decision for you, there are other options you can use to earn a good income.
Attending community college is substantially cheaper than attending a four-year college or university. According to The College Board, the average cost of tuition at an in-district community college is just $3,770.
At a community college, you can earn an associate’s degree or complete certificate programs that lead to stable careers. For example, the following career paths require two-year degrees and have above-average salaries:
- Radiation therapist: $80,160
- Computer programmer: $79,840
- Dental hygienist: $72,910
- Registered nurse: $68,450
- Telecom installer: $53,640
Trade schools, vocational schools or technical colleges provide hands-on training for different skilled careers. The programs tend to be much shorter than college programs, with students graduating in six months to two years.
The cost of attending a trade school is much less than attending four-year schools. The average cost of completing a program is $33,000.
There is an increased demand for trained trade professionals, and you can earn a comfortable income. For example, these are the median incomes for the following trades according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:
- Electrician: $56,180
- Plumber: $55,160
- Carpenter: $48,330
- Mechanic: $42,090
If you’re interested in software and web development, attending a coding bootcamp can be a pathway to a potentially lucrative career. According to The Course Report, the average bootcamp program lasts for just 14 weeks, and you can land a new job in data science, app development or cybersecurity.
The average cost to attend a coding bootcamp is $13,500, and the average starting salary for bootcamp graduates is $67,000.
If you have an idea for a business, entrepreneurship may be a better career path than attending college. As an entrepreneur, you can be your own boss and set your own salary. The average salary for entrepreneurs is approximately $43,000 per year.
However, keep in mind that starting your own business can be risky, and it may be several years before your business turns a profit. To get help developing your ideas and creating a business plan, take advantage of resources offered by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Why does college cost so much?
There are many reasons that college costs have ballooned over time to their current levels. Demand for a degree has increased as more jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree for employment. The services that schools offer to students (and the staff required to administer those services) have also expanded, inflating colleges’ operating budgets.
Public institutions have also faced cuts to the funding they receive from state and local governments. That lack of funding is passed on to students in the form of higher prices.
What college degree should I get?
Choosing a major is one of the biggest decisions you’ll make as a student. If you’re undecided, consider your skills and interests first. You might also take some online career quizzes to get an idea of possible career paths.
Once you’ve made a list of options, research what each career really looks like. Review the type of setting each job works in as well as potential salaries. You should also consider how much time you want to dedicate to your education. Does your desired career require a bachelor’s degree or will you have to pursue additional education after your graduate?
How much does online college cost?
Prices for online degrees vary greatly depending on the school, program and level of education. According to U.S. News, the average total tuition cost for an online bachelor’s degree ranges from $38,496 to $60,593.
Several factors can influence the cost of online college. Public schools generally cost less than private ones, and in-state residents can also qualify for lower fees—even if you’ll be attending classes virtually.
How much do college applications cost?
The average college application fee is about $45, with some schools charging as much as $90 or $100 per application. Highly competitive schools tend to charge more; Cornell and Dartmouth, for example, each charge $80.
If you’re worried about application costs, many colleges offer fee waivers to students who qualify. You usually need to have a low income to be eligible.
How can I get financial aid for college?
The most important step to getting financial aid is to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This is the only way to qualify for federal student aid such as grants, work-study options and student loans.
States and schools also offer their own additional aid, which is often based on the information you provide in your FAFSA. Without submitting this important form, you could miss out on free money like grants or scholarships.
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Is the benefit of college worth the cost? ›
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, graduates with a bachelor's degree or higher had median usual weekly earnings of $1,556 when working full-time, compared to just $866 for high school graduates with no college studies. In this way, a college degree can almost double your earning potential.Do the benefits of college still outweigh the costs? ›
A study from the New York Federal Reserve finds that even after factoring in rising tuition costs and student debt, a college degree still pays off.What are 3 benefits of going to college? ›
- Earn more money, experience less unemployment. ...
- Raise your voice! ...
- Call the shots—be your own boss. ...
- Transform your family tree. ...
- Invest in and shape our democracy. ...
- Never stop evolving. ...
- Pay it forward. ...
- Bring your ideas to fruition.
Despite the rising cost of post-secondary education, a college degree still pays off for the majority of graduates. On average, those with a bachelor's degree earn significantly more than their peers with only a high school diploma.What are 3 disadvantages of going to college? ›
- College uses a fairly standard academic structure for education that not every student thrives in. ...
- Not every career choice is best learned in an academic environment. ...
- The “well-rounded” approach of colleges can be counter-productive with certain technical careers. ...
- College is expensive.
You don't necessarily need to go to college to earn big. There are plenty of high-income earners who did not go to college, and many high-paying industries that welcome non-college graduates. Start-ups in technology, for example, may be more interested in your skillset and potential than a degree.Can you be successful without college? ›
The short answer is “yes.” It is possible to succeed without college. But the longer answer is that succeeding without college—especially to the level that Gates, Zuckerberg, and Jobs did—is the exception, not the rule. To have a truly successful career, earning a college degree gives you a clear advantage.What are 3 reasons why the cost of college is increasing? ›
There are a lot of reasons — growing demand, rising financial aid, lower state funding, the exploding cost of administrators, bloated student amenities packages.How important is college in life? ›
College is important for many reasons, including increased career stability and satisfaction, and the ability to make an impact on your community. With more and more careers requiring advanced education, a college degree can be critical to your success in today's workforce.What are two cons of going to college? ›
- You may not gain technical skills. ...
- You may not get employability skills. ...
- Contact time is less than at school. ...
- You'll leave with a lot of debt. ...
- You will be committing at least three years of your life. ...
- You're not guaranteed a graduate job. ...
- Lifetime earnings can be higher with an apprenticeship.
What are 3 reasons college should be free? ›
- Improves Society. When people are more educated, they can solve problems better. ...
- Widened Workforce. Along with technological progressions comes a shift in the workforce. ...
- A Boosted Economy. Most students graduate with a massive amount of debt. ...
- Increase Equality. ...
- More Focus.
Education strongly correlates with future happiness
In a survey that utilized data from the U.S. General Social Surveys, 94% of people with a bachelor's degree or more reported feeling happy or very happy with their lives overall, while 89% of high school grads said the same.
A college education is vital to a healthier and happier lifestyle for individuals, families, and communities. Men and women who earn postsecondary degrees (the higher degree the better) are more likely to live longer and more satisfying lives.Why do people not go to college? ›
The study found that 38 percent of students didn't enroll because of fears about the cost of college and amassing debt, 27 percent felt college would be “too stressful” or “too much pressure,” 26 percent believed it was more important to work and earn money, and 25 percent felt uncertainty about their career ...What is the biggest struggle for college students? ›
- Social anxiety, general anxiety, test anxiety, or panic attacks.
- Family expectations or problems.
- Depression, lack of energy or motivation, hopelessness, being overwhelmed, low self-esteem, homesickness, loneliness.
(NewsNation) — Millions of college students this fall will decide what they want to study — but if they're anything like those who came before them, many will have regrets later on. As of 2021, nearly 40% of adults who went to college regret their choice of major, according to a Federal Reserve survey.Should you push your child to go to college? ›
Support your kids by NOT pressuring them to go to college
I'm here to tell you that the best way to support your kids is to not pressure them to go to college; it may be what ultimately gets them into college and flourishing in it. Don't pressure your kids to go to college right away.
They are nearly 40 percent more likely to be unemployed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, and nearly four times more likely to be living in poverty, according to the Pew Research Center. They're also more susceptible to economic downturns.Is it better to go to college or work after high school? ›
If you take a job right after high school, you may find yourself putting it off year after year, and it could hurt you in the long run. According to a Huffington Post report, those who choose not to go to college at all make as much as $800,000 less than college graduates over the course of their lifetime.What jobs make 6 figures without a degree? ›
- Real estate agent. Real estate can be a lucrative line of work for the right person. ...
- Construction management. Construction can be a lucrative industry, particularly for skilled laborers and managers. ...
- Elevator/escalator installer. ...
- Commercial pilot. ...
- Web developer. ...
- Honorable mentions.
What job pays the most without a degree? ›
- Patrol Officer.
- Executive Assistant.
- Flight Attendant.
- Sales Representative.
- Sound Engineering Technician.
- Medical Records Technician.
- Wind Turbine Technician.
- Community Health Worker.
- Landscaper and Groundskeeper.
- Home Health Aide.
- Personal Care Aide.
- Delivery Truck Driver.
People who argue that college is not worth it contend that the debt from college loans is too high and delays graduates from saving for retirement, buying a house, or getting married. They say many successful people never graduated from college and that many jobs, especially trades jobs, do not require college degrees.Why is college so overpriced? ›
Over the last 30 years, tuition costs have soared for a variety of reasons. State funding cuts, expanding administrative staffs, and increased construction and facility costs all play a role. As a result, the average student debt among college graduates is now close to $28,000.How does the cost of college affect students? ›
With ballooning student loans, graduates tend to delay making major life decisions, such as buying a home, getting married, or having children. Other effects of rising college tuition include students enrolling at less expensive community colleges or dropping out of college altogether.Does college really matter that much? ›
While it depends on who you ask, and the data you crunch, to find an answer about whether a person's chosen school really, truly matters, attending college and earning a degree is generally an achievement that opens new career opportunities and leads to higher lifetime earning potential.What is the purpose of college and is it worth it? ›
College is important for many reasons, including increased career stability and satisfaction, and the ability to make an impact on your community. With more and more careers requiring advanced education, a college degree can be critical to your success in today's workforce.Why is the cost of college important? ›
When searching for one's ideal college or university, cost is often a significant factor. In some cases, it may impact a student's choice of which school to attend. Understanding the details of college costs could help students and parents create a financial plan for the road ahead.Is it better to go to a cheaper college or a better college? ›
The lower your college costs, the better the chance you'll get a satisfying return on your investment. That means earning enough after graduating to justify the expense of attending school.What is the real point of college? ›
According to the survey, most students attend college in order to qualify for a good job, be successful at work, make money, learn new things and grow as a person.
Do jobs really care about college? ›
Of the 1,250 hiring managers surveyed by Intelligent.com: 84% say the institution a candidate attended is a 'very important' or 'important' factor. 71% are more likely to move forward with a candidate who attended a top-tier school. 66% are more likely to move forward with a candidate who attended their own alma mater.Is it normal to not enjoy college? ›
It's perfectly acceptable to hate college, and it's not a crime to admit it to yourself. In fact, doing so alleviates the pressure to constantly enjoy and be grateful for the experience.Is college necessary for life? ›
That being said, you can certainly be successful without a college degree — your skills and talents can get you hired. Find out exactly what skills are needed for your career path and work hard to excel in them. You will have to be determined, self-disciplined, and goal-oriented.Does college lead to a better life? ›
A college education is vital to a healthier and happier lifestyle for individuals, families, and communities. Individuals with higher levels of education are more likely to live longer, healthier, and happier lives. Their choices can also influence family members in creating positive habits and healthy lifestyles.What are 5 benefits of a college degree? ›
You can expect your life to change in the best ways when you get a degree—you'll likely see more job opportunities, be a better job candidate, have higher earning potential, and enjoy greater economic and job stability if you are college-educated.Is it better to not save for college? ›
Saving for college provides several benefits, such as increased flexibility and less debt. Families who save for college can choose a more expensive college than they otherwise could afford. College savings also can reduce student loan debt, since every dollar you save is about a dollar less you'll have to borrow.