There’s no doubt college degrees have value, but as the costs to families continue to increase, it’s little wonder so many students and their families are starting to wonder: In pure dollars and cents, is college actually worth it?
There are both benefits and drawbacks to getting a college education, but spoiler — most of the time, higher education does pay off. Let's get into the details of the top benefits, drawbacks, and schooling alternatives you can explore post high-school graduation.
Benefits of getting a college education
Before making the decision to go to college, it's important you have a good idea of the potential benefits of receiving a college degree. While a four-year college may seem like a big investment, it's often worth it in the long-term.
Some of the top benefits of getting a college education include:
Earning a higher salary
Getting a higher net worth
Getting more networking opportunities
Increasing job satisfaction
Receiving employer benefits
Let's go into more detail about these benefits so you can ensure you're making the best decision for your career goals and future.
Earn a higher salary with a degree
The cost of a college education — and the loans most students use to pay for it — are a legitimate financial concern. But a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York confirmed that people with college degrees are more likely to get a high-paying job.
According to the study, the average college graduate earned about $78k compared to $45k for workers who have a high school diploma. That’s a significant difference, especially when you consider the effects during a working career. For many, the return on investment —based on the cost of tuition and the average salary increase with a bachelor's degree — is very high.
However, there are exceptions. People who graduate in the bottom quarter of their class, drop out, or take more than four years to finish, are less likely to see those financial benefits. If you have reason to believe you might not finish on time, taking on debt to go to college is a bigger financial risk.
A similar study by the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank found that over time, college graduates have an “Income premium” of nearly 100% compared to high school graduates. They also have a higher net worth: The median net worth of people with a four-year degree was $290k in 2016, compared to just $53k for non-degree holders. College graduates were also more likely to own their own home, be married, and report being in good health.
There are two wrinkles worth noting though. The overall increased net worth of college degree holders wasn’t equally spread out among demographic groups. There are benefits to a degree, but everyone’s not getting the same-sized piece of the pie.
The researchers also found that the higher net worth enjoyed by college graduates has been declining— even as the income boost has stayed roughly the same. One of the reasons for that is the increasing costs of college. A higher income only helps so much if one-fourth if your income goes to paying off loans.
To ensure your degree gets you the most bang for your buck (and your time) your best bet is to minimize the cost of your college degree.
Get more networking and job opportunities
College degrees also open doors to a wider, and generally better-paying variety, of professions. That’s particularly important in today’s fast-changing economy. If you have a degree, it’s easier to pivot to different types of work if you need to respond to a recession or a technological change that alters an industry.
A study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that between 2010 and 2016, 99% of new jobs went to workers with either an associate, bachelor, or graduate degree.
Even in the current job market, getting a full-time job can be incredibly competitive. During your college career, you'll be able to meet industry professionals who could potentially help you up get a job in the future. Most colleges and universities also have a career center where you can get assistance with getting an internship while you're still in school or finding a job after graduation.
College will be a better investment if you make the most of your time there. Connecting with — and maintaining those bonds with — your professors, industry professionals, and fellow college students can really help open doors for you post-graduation.
Increased job satisfaction
As a college graduate, you can look forward to earning more than non-degree holders and choosing your own career path. When you attend a four-year college, it opens up doors to many jobs that would otherwise be unobtainable without a degree. You have the freedom to choose something you want to do for work.
Many fields, like computer science, healthcare, finance, and education will require you to get a college degree for the majority of jobs. However, it's important for you to research your ideal career path before enrollment. If the path you choose requires a degree, you'll be required to get one before you can work in that field.
Receive employer offered benefits
A big reason many people get a four-year college degree is the anticipated salary increase. However, fewer people talk about how most employers offer valuable benefits like healthcare and 401K retirement plans.
The cost of healthcare continues to skyrocket, so many companies offer lucrative benefits packages to help offset the costs. Many jobs that don't require a degree also don't offer healthcare packages and benefits to their employees. However, many college grads will receive a job offer that includes a benefits package.
A lot of part-time positions and full-time jobs that don't require a degree won't offer a benefits package, so you'll have to seek healthcare benefits from a private organization or through the federal government.
Potential drawbacks of college
While most studies say going to college is a worthwhile investment in your future, there are some notable drawbacks you should consider. After all, your career goals may not align with the higher education process. It's incredibly important to make all relevant considerations before enrolling, especially with the rising costs of college.
Some of the potential drawbacks to college include:
Student loan debt
A job is not guaranteed
It's time consuming
Based on these potential drawbacks, you may discover that college is not the right path for you — and that's okay! There are still plenty of job opportunities and career paths you can take without a college degree.
Student loan debt
Along with the college experience comes student loan debt. The vast majority of Americans will need to take out student loans to complete their degree. Even after receiving financial aid from both their university and the federal government, the average person graduates from a four-year university with $37,584 in student loan debt according to EducationData.org.
Your specific repayment terms will vary based on your individual loans, but you should weigh the value of college vs. the total cost of your tuition. Most loan terms give borrowers a six-month grace period before they have to start repaying their college debt and the standard student loan pay off period is about 10 years.
A job isn't guaranteed
The most overwhelming part of post-graduate life is finding a job in your specified field. While unemployment rates are generally lower for degree holders, there's still no guarantee that you'll find a job after graduation. Most universities and colleges will have a career services office to assist you in your job search, but it still may be difficult to find a role you want to be in.
When you sign up for enrollment for college, you'll need to weigh the opportunity cost of going to college. You'll be responsible for the full cost of your tuition, whether you find a job after graduation or not.
It's time consuming
Not only is it expensive, college is also incredibly time consuming. For a bachelor's degree, it'll generally take you a minimum of 4 years to complete. While you can fast track this in some instances, your course load will also take up a lot of your personal time.
No matter what your major is, you'll likely need to dedicate a large portion of your time to studying for assessments, completing homework, and attending class. Depending on your anticipated profession, you may decide it's better to dedicate your time to furthering your career in different ways. You should decide if you want to dedicate that much time to school or if you'd rather take a career path that does not actually require schooling.
Alternative schooling options
College is not the only path you can take after receiving your high school diploma. You can choose to take an alternative career path that can be just as lucrative and satisfying. If you choose to take an alternate route, consider these alternative schooling options:
It's very possible to have a successful career without a college degree. If you don't think college is right for you, explore these alternative post-graduation options to jumpstart your career.
One of the top alternatives to attending a traditional, four-year university is going to trade school. Trade school allows you to explore career opportunities as a mechanic, plumber, electrician, carpenter and more.
Trade schools also cost significantly less than a four-year university and you can typically complete them in much less time than a bachelor's or even an associate's degree. Depending on the trade you choose to study and the school you attend, your course completion could take you anywhere between 3-18 months.
If you don't want to commit to spending money on a bachelor's degree, you can explore either associate's degree programs or professional certifications available at your local community college. The overhead costs of community college are significantly less than a four-year university and it offers you more flexibility in scheduling.
Most community colleges offer flexible scheduling, night classes, and online courses so you can balance school with full-time work or other responsibilities. You also have the flexibility to explore a four-year degree after you get an associate's if you so choose.
Another option post-high school is to explore entrepreneurship opportunities. If you have an idea for a business or not-for-profit, you can choose to explore opportunities within that field. However, it's important to note that starting a business has a lot of risks associated with it. If you have a business idea that you're passionate about, it can definitely be worth it to take the risk and explore.
The bottom line: Is going to college worth it?
The best choice for starting a career after high school varies from person to person. You should weigh the benefits and drawbacks of going to college against your personal career goals. And remember: You can always return to school at any point in time if you choose to take an alternative route.
Carol Katarsky is a contributing writer for Nitro. She is an award-winning journalist with extensive experience writing about both finance and education. Her corporate and non-profit clients include AIG, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Project Management Institute. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, son, and one cat more than she should. Read more by Carol Katarsky