When I graduated from high school in 2004, the standard advice for grads was to go to college. By “college,” everyone meant a four-year university. With a bachelor’s degree, we were told, you were assured a decent job that would support a family and provide health insurance and retirement.
That is no longer the case for everyone who earns a four-year degree.
The cost of a bachelor’s degree is now “two-and-a-half times as much as it was in 1988 — a markup of 163 percent.” And according to Forbes.com, the cost of college has increased “almost 8 times faster than wages.” Tuition has skyrocketed, but the number of fees has multiplied as well, and textbook costs have risen so quickly that many instructors have stopped using them altogether. These and other factors contribute to the average $33,310 in student loan debt that today’s top scholars face upon completion of their degree. With wages for most fields having been stagnant for decades, upcoming high school graduates are smart to ask whether a college degree is worth it.
There is no magic answer that is right for everyone, but there are some things you can consider to help you judge how beneficial a college degree may be to you.
College is an Investment
The purpose of an investment is to make a profit. You put in time, money, or effort in order to reap a reward. College is the same way. When choosing a college, you need to consider what your actual profit will be versus the cost of your education. To do this, consider the cost of your education versus the potential income you will earn with your degree. Tools like the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Glassdoor.com can help you research the earning potential of different careers, which you can then weigh against the cost of a degree at various schools.
College is expensive, but some colleges are more expensive than others. Students sometimes ignore the price tag, figuring all schools are equally expensive or being drawn in by recognizable names or elaborate marketing, and they choose schools that are more expensive than necessary.
What many students don’t know is that name recognition doesn’t matter in most fields. Employers care what you know, and a college degree shows that you have certain skills employers want, like self-direction, time management, critical thinking, and perseverance. There are fields such as medicine and some areas of business where going to the right school can make a difference, but this doesn’t apply to most people seeking a degree. Rather than focusing on whether the school is well-known, look at the department you’ll be studying in:
- Does the department have a good placement record for their graduates?
- Does the department help students find internships or provide hands-on learning so you can have actual work experience (paid or unpaid) before graduation?
- How closely will you be able to work with the professors in your department?
If a school is smaller and less well-known, but the department is solid, then depending on your long-term goals it may be more cost-effective to attend the smaller school. You will put less money into paying for school and you will generally earn approximately the same amount after graduation. In this sense, the smaller school is the better investment because it yields more profit. Practically speaking, if your dream is to teach high school biology, it’s not necessary for you to pay the cost of attending a school that’s focused on churning out Nobel Prize-winning researchers.
Your Choices Partly Determine the Cost
There are ways to make college more affordable, such as attending a community college or a state school rather than a research institution. Besides being considerably cheaper than a university, many community colleges offer scholarships, and not all of these scholarships are for academics. I have worked at institutions that offered scholarships for students who worked as academic tutors, participated in the school choir, helped organize intramural athletics, or served as representatives for visiting students, alumni, or investors. As an added bonus, some of these activities help students develop skills that they can later list on their resume. Talk to the financial aid and student activities departments at schools you are considering to determine what you may be eligible for.
Another consideration is attending school part-time while working full-time. Often, academic advisors pressure students to attend full-time, saying full-time students are more likely to graduate. This is true, however, paying to attend full-time can be a financial burden for students with full-time jobs or families to support. Highly motivated students who attend part-time may experience less financial pressure while attending, may be able to earn better grades when attending part-time, and often graduate with a longer work history that will help them find work more quickly after graduation. For students with financial burdens who can stay focused on long-term goals, this is a good option.
Attending school part-time is especially beneficial for students whose employers will help with the cost of school. Some companies offer tuition assistance, tuition reimbursement, or employer-sponsored scholarships for classes or degrees that are relevant to the job, while other employers offer the same benefits for degrees in any field. This may sound too good to be true, but many employers see this as a worthwhile investment because of the skills their employees gain. It also increases loyalty to the company.
Return on Investment
Although college is expensive, there are some reasons to be hopeful about the cost of a degree. College graduates on average still earn significantly more than people with only a high school diploma. And even though high school graduates who go straight into the workforce may have half a decade of work experience by the time their peers graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree, the college grad is likely to earn more from the start and earn raises and promotions more quickly. Further, college graduates are less likely to be unemployed and less likely to stay unemployed when they are laid off.
There are other benefits of a college degree that many people are unaware of. For instance, studies show that college graduates tend to find more fulfillment in their work, tend to be more involved in their communities, and tend to be heathier. They even tend to live longer! These benefits could be linked to a number of factors, such as college graduates being more likely to have health insurance and the money to visit the doctor, as well as college graduates tending to work fewer jobs and fewer hours overall. Benefits like these can be hard to measure, but study after study concludes that graduating from college is linked to a better overall quality of life.
College Doesn’t Exclude Technical Education
Don’t forget that you can become a car mechanic, plumber, or even a beautician by attending a technical college. As I’ve written about before, technical programs are often shorter and cheaper, and because they lead to specific careers, graduates of technical programs may find work more quickly than their liberal arts counterparts. Salaries for technical program graduates often rival or exceed those of university graduates, making technical education a wonderful option for many students.
Yes, sometimes college grads end up serving fries after graduation. I finished my B.A. in 2008 and spent the Year of the Great Recession working as a nanny, cleaning houses, and making sandwiches at Subway while living with my parents. It happens.
However, that didn’t last forever. Like most college grads, I found my feet and have had a successful career since. Finding a job can take a while, but statistics suggest that if you earn a degree from an accredited college or university or technical school (I really cannot emphasize enough that technical education is college, too), you are likely to earn more, find better employment, and live a better quality of life.
Remember that your college education, whether technical or liberal arts, is an investment in your future. By choosing a school that matches your goals, making practical financial choices, and taking advantage of financial assistance, it is possible to make your college experience yield a worthwhile return on investment.