As a young adult, college is a super exciting time in your life. But making payments on your student loans long after you graduate? Not so exciting.This leads a lot of people to ask: Is college worth it?
The average cost of just one year at college can range anywhere from $21,370 for a public, in-state university to a whopping $48,510 for a private university.(1) Multiply that by four years, and the total is crazy! If you’re taking out student loans to pay for college, you’ll be tens of thousands of dollars in debt before you even graduate. No thanks.
I see way too many people struggling to pay on their student loans while their future is at risk. It’s a common problem that’s only getting worse: America’s total student loan debt is now over $1.4 trillion.(2)
Think of the toll that debt takes on your goals and dreams. Depending on the loan repayment plan, it can take up to 30 years to pay off student loans.(3) That’s a huge part of your life you can’t get back.
Listen: It’s never a good idea to go into debt. But no matter what you might think, you can pay cash for school. It just takes some hustle. So, before you start wearing that certain school’s colors 24/7, ask yourself this question: Is the cost of college really worth it?
When Is Paying for College Worth It?
Let’s be real. I’m a big fan of college, but there are pros and cons to any major life decision. And it’s wise to look at them carefully. So right now, let’s weigh the pros of going to college.
College graduates tend to make more money.
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the median income for a high school graduate is $28,000, while those with a bachelor’s degree make around $44,000.(4) As long as you graduate debt-free, that college diploma could help you build wealth a lot quicker than if you didn’t go to college.
Many jobs require a college degree.
You can choose from plenty of exciting careers without a degree. But certain jobs like teaching, nursing, engineering and law all require at least a two-year degree. Graduating college can open doors to career paths that would be closed to you otherwise. Not to mention having a degree might put you ahead of your competition during the job hunt, even for jobs where a degree isn’t required.
You learn a lot inside and outside the classroom.
In college, you’re not just learning concepts and taking exams. Your classes help you build skills you’ll need in the workforce, like problem solving, critical thinking, teamwork and organization. Yeah, you could gain this experience in other ways, but it’s part of what makes the college experience a good investment for a lot of people.
College is also a great opportunity to branch out and meet people from all walks of life. You never know what you might learn from someone with a different background than yours. And universities are usually melting pots of cultures, religions, political views and other beliefs. While your core values will probably remain the same, you’ll hopefully gain a better understanding of where others are coming from.
You’ll have access to more opportunities.
Internships are one of the best ways to gain on-the-job experience—and maybe even a job offer. But many internships are only available to current college students.
A typical college campus should also have guidance counselors, career centers, job fairs, clubs, and volunteer opportunities to help you gain the experience you’ll need to make yourself stand out in the job market. Many colleges work hard to make sure that a high percentage of graduates move directly into the workforce in their fields of study. That’s a win for you and for them.
When Is Paying for College Not Worth It?
I say this all the time: College is not for everyone. And just like there are plenty of pros to getting a college degree, there are some cons too. Let’s talk about them.
You might not need a degree to do the job you want.
A college degree can open doors, but what keeps those doors open? Hard work! Some of the world’s wealthiest businesspeople didn’t even finish college—think technology trailblazers Bill Gates, Larry Ellison and Michael Dell. They’re proof the traditional college route isn’t the only path to success.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports that about 43% of college grads are working a job that doesn’t need a degree.(5) Plus, the number of job postings requiring a college degree dropped from 34% in 2012 to 30% in 2018 (according to a labor-market research firm’s analysis of websites like Indeed and Craigslist).(6)
Don’t look past alternatives like trade schools, community colleges, apprenticeships and entrepreneurship to get you the job you want. It’s hard to beat the price difference. For example, a typical two-year community college degree costs about half as much per year as an in-state four-year college—and about one-ninth as much per year as a private four-year university!(7)
Your degree might not land you a high-paying job.
Sure, they’ll all help you bring home a paycheck—but not all degrees are created equal. A history degree might earn a starting salary of 36K while a mechanical engineering degree, for instance, might earn twice that. You have to consider whether what you’d be making is worth what you’ll be paying for school. Seriously—graduating college with $100,000 in student loan debt to take a job making $36,000 just doesn’t make sense. And it doesn’t take a college degree to figure that out.
You could regret the experience.
According to a 2017 Gallup survey, 51% of Americans who pursued education beyond high school would consider changing their degree type, institution or major.(8) If you’re not 100% sure about what you want to do, you could end up making quick decisions about your college education that you’ll regret later. And quick, careless decisions can be expensive!
You might not even graduate.
You may really plan on graduating, but the pressure of balancing school, work, family and friends is tough for a lot of college students to handle. The National Center for Education Statistics found that only 59% of students they surveyed at public colleges completed their degree within six years.(9) And if you don’t finish your degree, that’s thousands of dollars down the drain!
Alternatives to a College Degree
A lot of people think that if you don’t get a degree from a four-year college, you can’t win. I don’t buy that. There are alternatives to college that don’t include working for minimum wage. Becoming a real estate agent, medical assistant or web developer won’t require a college degree—but they will require some training. You can also enlist in the military. And if you do decide to go to college later, you may be able to have your college expenses covered through the GI Bill. Is college worth it in that case? It’s something to think about.
Are you ready to be the CEO of your own company? Start your own business. You don’t need a degree in business to be in business. You can embrace the entrepreneurial spirit and start your own business in just a few minutes, thanks to websites like eBay, Etsy and Amazon.
And don’t forget: You could also take free online classes, learn a skill at a trade school, or get your associate degree at a community college.
Is College Really Worth It?
Some people go to college because it’s the norm in today’s society, because their parents want them to, or because all their friends and family members did. But many people go to college with the hope that it will help them have a better future. This can be true as long as you combine that hope with hard work and pay for it without loans.
So, yes, college can be worth it if you can cash flow it! There are a lot of careers where a college education is required or will improve your chances for promotion. When you pursue a college degree, do just that. Get the degree but don’t worry about the pedigree. You don’t have to pay three times (or nine times) as much to go to a big-name school to get the same type of degree.
On the flip side, if you can’t afford to pay cash for college or if you don’t need a four-year degree for your desired job, paying all that money for a college degree is definitely not worth it. Just having a college degree for the sake of having one won’t solve your problems. It will only leave you with a pile of debt.
If you do decide that college is for you, the most important thing is to be sure you can pay for it. Consider applying for scholarships, finding an easy part-time job, or even taking a few semesters off to save up before you go. Believe it or not—you can pay for college without taking out student loans!
Remember: The caliber of your future will be determined by the choices you make today, especially the financial choices you make about college.
Still have questions? The Graduate Survival Guide is the book every college-bound student needs to prepare for their next step, with plenty of tips on how to go to college debt-free—and stay debt-free for life!
About Anthony ONeal
At age nineteen, Anthony ONeal was deep in debt and short on hope with no direction of where his life was headed. But after hitting rock bottom, he turned his life around and committed to helping students find and pursue their passions. Since 2003, Anthony has helped more than a million students make smart decisions with their money, relationships, and education to live a well-balanced life. He’s the national bestselling author of Graduate Survival Guide: 5 Mistakes You Can’t Afford to Make in College, and travels the country spreading his encouraging message to help teens and young adults start their lives off right. Connect with Anthony on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.