The goal of attending college is to get a better job after graduating. But, with rising tuition fees, many families and students wonder, is college really worth it? After all, who wants to end their education in tens of thousands of dollars of debt? But, when you do the math, is investing four years of education and a five-figure sum worth it? Of course, without a solid plan, any kind of investment has some risk. But what about going to college?
The reality is that many of the best jobs out there require a college degree. And, there’s growing evidence that college grads do earn more than those who only finished high school. But, does that mean going to college is worth it for you?
This article crunches the numbers to find out the true cost of attending college. And, not just how much debt you might have when you graduate—but how much you’ll likely be earning 10, 20, or 30 years from graduation.
You’ll also learn about the advantages and disadvantages of going through four years of college. But that’s not all—if you decide to attend college, we’ll also show you what type of financial assistance is out there to help minimize the cost of getting a degree.
Deciding if College is Worth it: the Expenses
Since the 1980s, the cost of tuition, room, board, supplies, and other fees has skyrocketed.
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) provided information on the average cost of attending college in 2018. The total costs of a four-year course for undergraduate students were as follows:
- Living on-campus at a public, in-state university – $24,320.
- Private, non-profit university – $50,338.
- Private, for-profit university – $32,244.
Of course, living off-campus is cheaper. But not everyone can do that. So, to help pay college fees, you can apply for federal grants, scholarships, and loans. According to some stats, the number of loans granted to finance higher education has gradually fallen since it hit a peak in 2011.
Is College Worth the Cost?
There are many pros and cons to any decision you have to make in life. And the same is true when it comes to deciding whether or not to go to college. So, to answer the question— is college worth it or not—depends on your goals. But there are several facts that illustrate that a college degree can be worth the cost of getting one.
Average earnings with a college degree are higher
Stats show that people who graduate from college generally earn more than those who don’t. In 2019, the average earnings for grads with a bachelor’s degree were $1,383 per week. For high school graduates with no college experience, wages were $747 a week. This means that a degree is worth 54% more in earnings.
When you do the math, what does this work out over a lifetime?
Based on those figures, a person with a bachelor’s degree would earn $2,764,000 over a 40-year career. A high school grad would only earn $1,494,000—a difference of $1.2 million.
So, it’s not an exaggeration to say that you’re nine times more likely to earn over $2 million the span of your career if you have a college degree.
Increased employment chances with a college degree
Fact—you’re more likely to find a job if you have a college education. Even though unemployment in the U.S. is at a 50-year low, higher education still boosts your job prospects. Here are some facts to back this up.
According to the NCES, 86% of 25 to 34-year-olds are employed. But, this number drops to 72% if you only finished high school.
Another interesting report found that unemployment for college grads dropped in 2020—from 3.4% to 2.8%. For workers with only a high school diploma though, unemployment statistics remained the same at 3.8%.
Of course, nothing in life is guaranteed. But if you’ve got a clear idea of the type of job you want, it seems that finishing college is the way to go and will likely result in higher earnings over the course of your career.
The Main Ways a College Education Can Be Worth it
Apart from college being associated with higher earnings and better job prospects, what are some of the other benefits of getting a degree? Here are a few things to think about:
- Choose your career—Many jobs require a college degree. If you want to go into teaching, engineering, law, or the sciences, you will need to graduate from college. Even applying for jobs that don’t require a degree, having a degree can make you a more attractive candidate.
- Learn life skills—Going to college isn’t just about learning and exams. Your studies help you build skills you’ll need in life. For example, teamwork, critical thinking, solving problems, and organization. You’ll also expand your view of the world when you meet people from different cultures and backgrounds.
- Access to more opportunities—Internships are generally only open to college students. Many internships open up a wider range of opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise get. College also puts you in touch with career counselors, job clubs, and others who can guide you in your career.
- Expand your network—At college, you get to form bonds with graduates and professionals and others who are in your industry. These people can turn out to be valuable connections in later life.
Is College Worth it for You?
College may not be for everyone. Not all jobs require degrees, and usually, the key to being successful is hard work. Take, for example, people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg—none of them finished college. But they are the exception rather than the rule. It’s also important to consider that yes, they did drop out of college. But the colleges they left were ivy leagues.
Some people may be put off from going to college because of the cost involved. Or, you may have dropped out—or be thinking about dropping out—because of cash problems or some other issue. A study published by College Atlas found that students from low-income families are more likely to drop out than those from wealthier families. Also, 30% of freshmen drop out of college after their first year.
What are some of the main reasons why some don’t finish their degree?
A lot of students get into a situation where they think they can’t afford to finish their degree. In some cases, it could be because they haven’t gotten much financial backing from the “bank of mom and dad.” Or, the cost of paying back student loans can become a huge financial burden. Some students don’t plan well for the cost of everything that goes with college life.
Not finishing a degree can become a costly mistake. It’s like investing in some stocks and never taking ownership of them. Dropping out if you think you can’t afford it doesn’t have to be a foregone conclusion—especially when financial aid may be available.
Not sure of their major
You may find yourself sitting on the fence when it comes to your degree. Many students start college without declaring their major. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. But eventually, pressure builds, the student loses focus, and they end up dropping out.
If you feel undecided, it is usually best to speak to your professors and advisors. They can help you find direction to continue with your studies.
Demanding study schedule
You might be tempted to drop out because the study schedule is too much. Moving from high school to college is a big learning curve for most people. The coursework is more demanding, and there’s a lot more responsibility.
You also have the stress of balancing studies and often with work, living on your own, and getting homework done on time. You might even find that your newfound freedom is a lot less than what you imagined it would be.
How to Make College Worth it
Even though going to college is expensive, evidence suggests that it’s one way to improve your chances of greater wealth and earning potential. As with any investment, there’s an initial cost with the hope of rewards down the line. How can you avoid tuition fees becoming a financial lead weight?
There are a few ways to make the cost of college worth it. These include finding a program that you can graduate from, making sure your major leads to a well-paying career, and getting as much financial aid as possible. Let’s look at these points in more detail.
Find a program that fits you
There are over 4,000 universities and colleges in the U.S. You’re bound to find at least one that suits you. Getting a course that fits your area of focus gives you a higher chance of graduating. It also means you’re more likely to get a good-paying job that you enjoy once you graduate.
You should also know what your earnings are likely to be. After all, you want to make sure that you get a good return on your investment. Even if you don’t major in one of the four highest-paid STEM industries—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—you can still find excellent jobs after graduating.
Consider studying online
Have you thought about getting your college education online? If you feel that the cost, your schedule, or your lifestyle prohibits you from getting a degree—think again. Studying at an accredited college online can significantly slash the cost of getting a degree. And, you can find a degree course that suits your lifestyle and schedule.
Degree courses that are 100% online can start from as little as $7,000 per year. You can get a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree from the comfort of your own home—or local coffee shop if you prefer.
Get financial aid
Getting a degree doesn’t have to be associated with a burden of debt if you can get financial assistance. In some cases, you can get cash for free to pay for your education. If you’re on a low-income, grants, scholarships, and other financial aid can help you get a degree.
Let’s look at a few options you can try.
Pell Grants — If you or your family can’t afford tuition fees, you can apply for a Pell Grant. According to Student Aid, Pell Grants are free money to “undergraduate students who display exceptional financial need.” The maximum you can receive is $6,346 in the 2020-21 academic year.
Scholarships and student grants — You might qualify for a scholarship to pay for your college education. Getting a grant or scholarship depends on your academic ability, talents, or background. This financial aid can pay for all or part of your education.
Any money you get as financial aid to complete your learning can be used in several ways. The U.S. Department of Education says that grants can be used to cover the sticker price of a college education. This includes:
- The cost of yearly tuition.
- Personal expenses, books, transportation, supplies.
- Room and board.
- Costs to care for dependents if you have them.
If you get the right type of financial help, getting a college degree can be worth it for you.
Alternatives to Traditional College
What if you feel that a college education is not for you? Or, if your career path doesn’t require studying for four years to get a degree? Just because you don’t go to college doesn’t mean you’ll be stuck working for minimum wage. There are many alternatives to college to further your education and improve your job prospects.
Enroll in a community college
Generally, it’s cheaper to study at a community college than a four-year university. With community college, you can graduate with an associate’s degree or certification after studying for two years. One of the benefits of a community college is that you can use the credits towards a bachelor’s degree program later on.
Attend a vocational college
Vocational college mixes classroom learning with “hands-on” learning. Studying in a vocational college is popular for learning specific skilled trades—cosmetology, healthcare, medical assistants, the hospitality industry, etc. These are job-focused courses and often increase opportunities for job placements soon after graduating.
Become an apprentice
Getting an apprenticeship is a similar type of learning tract to vocational college. You get classroom learning combined with paid on-the-job training. These courses can help you become a highly skilled worker, ready to enter the workforce at the end of your training. You may even be able to earn college credits if you decide to pursue a bachelor’s degree later on.
Making a College Degree Worth it
Getting a college degree doesn’t have to sink you into a bottomless pit of debt. If you pick your courses wisely and graduate college, you’re more likely to get a high-paying job. Earning six-figure sums will enable you to pay off student loans quickly and allow you to build wealth—much more wealth than if you’d never attended college in the first place. Instead of thinking of college as something you “have to do,” or that society is pressuring you to do, think of it as an investment. When college and postsecondary education are treated as investments, you’re more likely to make the right financial choice for your situation and career goals.