Is College Really Worth It?

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The value of a college degree is increasingly in question. At best, a lot of people are not so sure.

A just-issued survey from the Pew Research Center found that 22% thought college was simply not worth it, 47% said college was worth it — but only without student loans, and a meager 22% said college was worthwhile even with student financing. 

Such results are hardly an endorsement of higher education. How is it possible that a college education — something long regarded as the key to a higher income, career advancement, and greater social standing — is increasingly seen as nice but optional, and maybe not necessary at all?

The latest government figures show that college degrees can pay off. The typical weekly earnings for someone with a bachelor’s degree was $1,432 in 2022 versus $853 for a high school diploma.

That’s a difference of $579 a week, or more than $30,000 a year. Over a 40-year career, a college grad might well earn an additional $1.2 million.

One reason college grads have higher earnings is the benefit of more training. Another is that the employment process is dominated by degree holders who are most comfortable hiring other graduates.

As The New York Times explains, “Employers used elite colleges as a kind (of) human resources proxy to vet potential candidates and make their jobs easier by doing a first cut.” (parenthesis mine)

Costs & Options

A college degree can represent a major financial commitment.

According to the College Board, “In 2023-24, average estimated budgets (tuition and fees, housing and food, and allowances for books and supplies, transportation and other personal expenses) for full-time undergraduate students range from $19,860 for public two-year in-district students and $28,840 for public four-year in-state students to $46,730 for public four-year out-of-state students and $60,420 for private nonprofit four-year students.”

 These numbers are the “published’ or “sticker” prices. Like the prices found at car dealerships, they represent a start in the negotiating process. The more important — and much lower — numbers are the net prices, the cost of college after assistance such as grants and scholarships.

For example, when assistance is considered, the $60,420 figure above is reduced to a net Cost of Attendance (COA) of $34,790 according to the College Board. 

The catch is that $34,790 is still a large number. The Census Bureau estimates that in 2022 the typical household income was $74,580. For many, if not most students, college is great — but college at a lower cost is better.

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The good news is that college options with far lower costs are widely available.

First, take college-level classes in high-school. These can allow you to enter college with credits in hand and thus lower costs. 

Second, public two-year and four-year schools can be credible and much cheaper educational options, both as degree-granting schools and as institutions to get credits that can be transferred to more expensive colleges. If you want an interesting experience, tour your local community college and other nearby schools.

Third, under new tax rules created by the SECURE 2.0 Act of 2022, more corporate employers will provide student loan assistance.

Fourth, study in-state at a public school. You’ll get a special (cheap) rate and may be able to live at home — a huge cost saver.

Fifth, consider an associate degree rather than a four-year program. A two-year degree can be sufficient to enter some businesses and once you’re in, you’re in. 

Sixth, consider military service. The military offers an exceptional benefits package that includes free college tuition. Importantly, the military also provides on-the-job (OJT) training that can lead to civilian careers. 

Seventh, look at the professional licenses in your state. What are the education and experience requirements to get a license? In many cases, a combination of classes and experience with a current licensee can get you into a good-paying field.

Eighth, look for training programs. Many businesses are happy to train individuals and help them move up the career track. Why? Because there’s a severe worker shortage. In March, the country had 8.5 million job openings. Walk in the door, be pleasant, work hard, and employers will want to keep you.

Is College Worthwhile?

The question of whether college is worthwhile is unique to every individual. There’s no universal answer to such a question, either pro or con.

That said, in the past few years, perhaps as an outgrowth of the pandemic, there’s been more attention to work-life balance. The perception of an ideal life — one with a chain of events that includes doing well in high school, going to college, and then moving on to a successful career — is now in flux. Yes, people want and need money, but maybe the greater need is personal fulfillment.

“Ambition is more than climbing the career ladder and talent’s motivation is not necessarily driven by promotions,” according to Randstad NV, an international talent agency.

In its latest annual survey of employee attitudes, it found that “For nearly two-thirds of respondents (60%), their personal lives are more important than their work lives. Work-life balance now ranks as highly as pay on workers’ lists of priorities (93%) — more than any other considerations. When looking at their next career move, work-life balance is even more important (57%) than higher pay (55%). Over a third don’t want career progression because they are happy in their role (39%), and the long-term ambition for most respondents is a stable in-house role.”

In addition, said Randstad NV, 37% “would consider quitting if they were forced to spend more time in the office.”

Declining college interest can be seen as part of a broader movement. The goal for many people is no longer maximizing income, it is instead a better work-life balance, a balance where a college degree may be less important than in the past.

Peter G. Miller

Peter G. Miller is a nationally-syndicated columnist, the author of seven books published originally by Harper & Row (including one with a co-author), and has contributed to leading online sites and major print publications. He has appeared on numerous media outlets including the Today Show, Oprah!, CNN, and NPR.

Peter has been an accredited correspondent on Capitol Hill and a member of the White House Correspondents Association. He has served with the District of Columbia National Guard and holds both BA and MS degrees from The American University in Washington, DC. View Peter on LinkedIn.