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Is College Worth The Cost?

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

I have a B.S. and M.A. in English from Bradley University, a small private school in central Illinois. I was recruited to run cross country and track for Bradley, and was blessed with a full ride scholarship. I didn't pay tuition, room and board, or books. When I moved out of the dorms, I had to pay for an apartment, but rent was very cheap ($300/month). Without my scholarship, I never would have gone to Bradley, which cost (at the time), a cool $40,000/year. Now, the cost to attend Bradley is over $50,000 and the average cost with aid is still nearly $26,000. Without my scholarship, I probably would have gone to a state school closer to home or to a community college for a few years.

I was (and still am) cautious of being in debt for anything, and college loans are more expensive than ever. I know people in their 50's who are still paying off student loans, and I know people my age with loans worth more than $100,000. I don't know about you, but my first full time job out of college paid $35,000/year. If I'd had a hefty student loan, I never would have been able to afford it. What's more, there are plenty of people making good livings without any degree at all. So I'm curious if college really is worth the cost, for someone paying out of pocket or taking out huge loans. Here's what I found.

First of all, college is necessary if you're trying to be a doctor or a lawyer or some sort of profession that requires traditional schooling. This is often the first argument for education, but it's boring and obvious. Plus I'd argue that a lot of courses I took in college (looking at you, gen eds) were unnecessary at best and a waste of time at worst. And although I was blessed with a free education, I can see a lot of value in earning both of my degrees, even if they weren't exactly necessary in getting a job later on. I learned how to think critically, had a lot of great dialogues and discussions, learned to write with more clarity and depth, and overall, loved the process of learning new things. But (and this is a big but), degrees do not equal earning power. College can be a good experience and be unnecessary, simultaneously.

There are a lot of factors to consider when weighing whether or not to go to college (or when), cost being the first consideration, and area of study being a close second. According to a report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW), adults with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of $2.8 million during their careers, whereas those with only a high school diploma earn $1.6. In addition, at every additional level of education, workers tend to earn more than those with less education.

However, that’s not the whole story. The report also shows that career earnings depend on many other factors such as age, field of study, occupation, gender, race/ethnicity, and location. For example, the report found that 36% of workers with a bachelor’s degree earn more than half of workers with a master’s degree.

Below are the median lifetime earnings of full-time workers by level of education.

  • less than high school - $1.2 million

  • high school diploma - $1.6 million

  • some college, but no degree - $1.9 million, equal to about $47,500 annually

  • associate’s degree - $2 million, or about $50,000 per year

  • bachelor’s degree - $2.8 million, the equivalent of $70,000 annually

  • master’s degree - $3.2 million, or $80,000 annually

  • doctoral degree - $4 million, equal to $100,000 per year

  • professional degree - $4.7 million, or an average of $117,500 annually.

While more education doesn't always equal more money, but it is still generally true. As many others have pointed out, how much you make is more strongly associated with what you study. Below are some top earning bachelor degrees:

  • Architecture and engineering - $3.8 million

  • Majors in computers, statistics, and mathematics - $3.6 million

  • Business majors - $3 million

  • Physical sciences - $2.9 million

  • Health - $2.9 million

  • Social sciences - $2.8 million

  • Biology and life sciences - $2.8 million

  • Communications and journalism - $2.7 million

  • Agriculture and natural resources - $2.6 million

  • Law and public policy - $2.6 million

  • Industrial arts, consumer services, and recreation - $2.5 million

  • Humanities and liberal arts — $2.4 million

  • Arts - $2.3 million

  • Psychology and social work - $2.2 million

  • Education - $2 million.

So while someone like me, who has a Master's degree in English, might (generally) make more than someone with only a Bachelor's, I might make less than someone with a Bachelor's in Architecture or Mathematics. All of this is worth considering when thinking about what to study and when factoring in the cost. I earn a relatively good salary, but if I had a hefty student loan to pay, I would have far less monetary freedom.

Another interesting finding of the Georgetown study was that women across all levels of education earned less than men, and the gap tended to grow with each level of education earned. The same is true of race and ethnicity: white and Asian workers with a bachelors degree earned more than black or Latino workers with the same degree. At the master's level, Asians earned more than any other racial group. And finally, location and cost of living proved to be another relevant factor. I live in Orange County, CA, where a salary of $100,000 isn't all that much, considering the average cost to rent a 1 bedroom apartment is over $2,400.

When is college worth it?

  1. You want a job that requires a college degree.

  2. You'll statistically have a leg up on your competition. Many employers require a certain level of education and won't consider candidates without it. Moreover, those with degrees typically get paid more.

  3. You learn a lot inside and outside the classroom. The connections you make, the network you build, and the skills you learn in college are a good investment for a lot of people. Meeting people from different walks of life can also be invaluable.

  4. You'll have access to more opportunities. Your university will have guidance counselors, career centers, job fairs, volunteer opportunities, clubs, and a host of opportunities to help you gain experience. Of course, all of those resources are only valuable if you take advantage of them.

When is college not worth it?

  1. You don't need a degree to do the job you want. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports that about 43% of college grads are working a job that doesn’t need a degree. Additionally, trade school or apprenticeships can be right for a lot of people.

  2. Your degree is not in high demand. Many degrees (mine included) are less valuable than others. You have to know that if you study art history or literature that your earning power will be less than someone with a mechanical engineering degree.

  3. You're unsure about what to study. There is no point in taking out a huge student loan without a pretty solid idea about what you want to study. Taking time to really figure out what you want to do could save you thousands in the long run.

Given that this can be a contentious subject, here are my takeaways:

  1. On average, completing higher levels of education remains a good strategy for improving your earning power. However, if you're in significant debt after completing your education, your higher earnings may mostly be spent paying back your student loans (which are, by the way, unforgiveable).

  2. What you study, your work, and where you choose to live all matter, too. Individuals with lower levels of education can easily earn more over their lifetimes than those with more education. That being said, it's also dumb to study something you hate, to get a high earning job that you'll probably also hate.

  3. According to the Federal Reserve, over half of college students took on some student loan debt each year, averaging between $20,000 and $25,000. Because loans of this size mean a large monthly payment upon graduation, about 20% of people with outstanding student loan debt are behind on their payments. Use this student loan calculator to see what sort of payments you might have to make upon graduation.

  4. When considering alternatives to an expensive degree, you have options. You could take a gap year to travel or work, learn a skill at a trade school, learn a skill online, complete an apprenticeship, or study more affordably at a community college.

P.S. Read about why student loans aren't even forgiven during bankruptcy here, read this highly biased article on why college is worth the cost, or read about feasible alternatives to college here.


Sarah Rose

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