Is Traditional College Worth It?

December 4, 2022

For many generations the popular mantra has consistently been: If you just go to college and earn a degree, it will lead to a high-paying job. That statement used to be overwhelmingly true and it was essentially ingrained into us as part of the American dream. However, as the legendary Bob Dylan says, “Times – they are a-changin’!”

In this article we are going to explore the *current* concept of traditional college to help determine if the soaring cost is worth the value of the degree.  

The Cost of College

News flash — college is expensive! Over the past 40+ years, gas prices have increased about 300%, gold has risen more than 1,200%, but the cost of college has outpaced them both skyrocketing more than 1,600%. According to College Board Trends, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2022–2023 school year was $39,400 at private colleges, $10,950 for state residents at public colleges, and $28,240 for out-of-state residents who attended public universities. Remember these costs do not reflect other expenses that college students will incur such as housing, transportation, food, and entertainment.

Cost of college in 2022
Average Published Tuition & Fees in 2022 dollars – College Board

Undoubtedly, the exorbitant cost of college has directly led to many students taking out massive loans that they are finding increasingly difficult to pay back. As a result, many young Americans are being crushed by school loan debt, which now stands at $1.75 trillion – America’s largest form of debt other than home mortgages. While investing in yourself is usually wise, we must wonder, is college worth it!?

Pros and Cons of Traditional College 

According to a recent Gallup report, only half of college students feel strongly that their education was worth the cost. The choice to attend college has become one of the most vital decisions that families face today.

Remember, going to college is YOUR decision. No one else can tell you what is right or wrong about whatever choice you ultimately decide. To help, here’s a breakdown of some potential benefits that you can receive, as well as some disadvantages of attending college.

PROS CONS
More job opportunities (after completing!)Increasing costs/unaffordable 
Many jobs require degreesAmassing student loan debt 
Graduates tend to earn more moneyMany jobs don’t require degrees 
You gain valuable life skills  Degree does not guarantee a job or high salary 
Access to resources and networking You might not graduate 
Develop lifelong friendshipsStress/anxiety 
Exposure to diversity/culture 4-6 year time commitment 

When College Makes Sense

There are several potential life-changing benefits from earning a college degree that include:

  • A million bucks! – The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) cites that the average college graduate will earn a million dollars more over their lifetime than their high school grad equivalent. 
  • Home ownership – Individuals who hold a college degree are 20% more likely to own a home.
  • Newer jobs – A massive amount of the new jobs that are being created are going to college-educated folks.
  • Employability – Statistics also show that the unemployment rate is lower for people who have a college education. 

Basically, if we enter into a recession, individuals with a college education will be impacted less severely. More money, more security, and more opportunity sound like a lot of positives!

When College Doesn’t Make Sense

There are many reasons to consider bypassing the pursuit of a college degree. Below are some situations to contemplate: 

  • Entrepreneurship – When you possess a clear vision of what you want to do, it may not be necessary to spend time and money in school exploring your options and learning something you might already know how to do. Maybe you love real estate and aspire to be a realtor. Or perhaps you are an amazing photographer or know how to build great websites. You can do all those things without a degree.
  • You have a different kind of smarts/skills – If you prefer to work with your hands, a trade school or apprenticeship might be best for you [more on this below]. You can grow a whole lot in your job in those four years that your peers are in school. Instead of subscribing to the idea that you must go to college, search for the type of work you enjoy. 
  • Your degree costs too much – If you are going to graduate with more debt than you can handle, you should reconsider. Student loan debt can haunt you. It’s nearly impossible to get rid of – even in bankruptcy. Proceed with caution. The general rule of thumb regarding student loans is to not take out a debt load higher than your expected first-year salary. 

The Opportunity Cost of College

Data from a recent Pew study revealed that only 62% of folks who start their college education end up with a degree after six years. This means that a decent chunk of individuals never end up obtaining the degree they set out to earn. Those folks end up in the worst possible circumstances – loaded with debt without any real ability to earn more income based on the time they’ve spent in class. 

It’s important to consider the opportunity cost that lies ahead of you. Instead of spending tens or even hundreds of thousands on an education that may or may not pan out for you – what if you invested that money instead? Instead of dedicating four or more years of your prime years to grinding it out on campus – what if you threw yourself directly into an industry you’re curious about in order to learn if that’s the field for you? The blind pursuit of academia without considering the alternatives could have a detrimental impact on your future.

How to Calculate College ROI

College is no longer a place for you to go “find yourself.” It’s simply too expensive. Let’s remove emotion for a sec and look at the plain math, or ROI.

The two most important questions to ask yourself are:

  1. How much will my education cost?
  2. How much am I likely to earn in the job market (once I graduate)?

If you want to go into a profession that requires a college degree, how much will it cost to get it? Even if you’re thinking that a skilled trade is for you, what will the cost of a trade school be? Immediately after considering the cost, you should be figuring out what the likely earning potential will be for the job/career path you are interested in. A part of the equation isn’t just what folks in that industry are making now, but what the trajectory of that industry is going to be in the years to come. 

Not all degrees are created equal. That’s why it’s important to do your due diligence when declaring a major. In fact, one think tank found that more than a quarter of degrees in fields like psychology, religion, art, music, and psychology leave the majority of students worse off than if they had never enrolled. This would equate to a negative ROI. Research your degree of interest to determine if the job industry offers a wider variety of high-paying opportunities. A helpful resource is the Department of Education’s college scorecard website. 

Best and Worst Degrees for Money

Here’s a list of some more degrees that may and may not lead to lucrative careers:

BEST DEGREESWORST DEGREES
Cyber SecurityArt History
Electrical Engineering & Computer Science Music
Public AccountingExercise Science
Information TechnologyLiberal Arts 
Civil Engineering Social Work & Human Services 

Alternatives to Traditional College

What do Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Dell, Larry Ellison, Ted Turner, Dave Thomas, and Paul Allen have in common? They represent some of the wealthiest and most influential entrepreneurs in the world. But NONE of them have a college degree. While college might not be for everyone, there are many other options available to obtain a higher education at a fraction of the time and cost. Consider the following: 

Community College

According to College Board Stats, one year at a public, four-year, in-state institution cost students an average of $10,950 in tuition and fees, while one year in a two-year, community college was just $3,730—a savings of $7,220 per year! An associate degree requires half the time, much less than half the money, and opens doors to some high-quality, in-demand jobs.

Online College

The perks of taking online classes (also known as distance learning) are numerous. Did you know you can earn a certificate, or associate, bachelor’s, or master’s degree online? With online classes, you’re only paying for the university credits. If you’re trying to save money, this is a perfect solution. Online learning isn’t for everyone and you have to be self-motivated and disciplined enough to keep up with the work. However, It can be a good option for parents, full-time workers, and students with disabilities.

Trade/Technical School

A trade school, also known as a technical or vocational school, is an educational institution that exists to teach skills related to a specific job. Due to the increasingly high costs associated with a college education, more people have been considering trade school as an education alternative. Trade schools typically take a lot less time to complete, have smaller class sizes, and the majority of the training is hands-on. This is an ideal environment for many types of learners. Vocational degrees can lead to well-paying jobs like electrician, mechanic, machinist, pharmacy technician, nuclear technician, and dental hygienist.

Apprenticeships

Did you know that many trades don’t require any paid tuition to learn a marketable skill on the job? Some will even pay you to learn through an apprenticeship program. That’s right! Welcome to the world of apprenticeships—the structured training programs which provide a chance to work towards a qualification while helping obtain the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a specific industry. If you’re curious about the skills you could learn and the apprenticeships that may be available in your area, Apprenticeship.gov offers an apprenticeship finder tool that helps you locate these opportunities in any ZIP code nationwide.

Continuing/Professional Education

Many colleges and universities offer continuing or professional education/training programs (also referred to as professional development) that provide non-degree courses designed to increase your work-based skills. Many of these professional education programs will award you a certificate upon completion. And, most offer an in-person or online learning platform. Whether you are seeking an industry certification, a digital badge in leadership, or skills training to enter a new field, each of these are obtainable through continuing and professional education courses at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional college. 

Military

There are many practical benefits to joining a branch of the military. In addition to a competitive salary, free healthcare, and minimal living expenses, the military will cover your tuition while in service. Additionally, soldiers have access to a variety of online learning options and there are satellite classrooms on many bases. Once your service is complete, you can also use the GI Bill to pay for part of your tuition. 

As you can see, you don’t need a college degree to be successful. All you need is drive, ambition, a willingness to work hard and learn, and the opportunity to go do it! 

Bottom Line: Is College Right for YOU?

The answer is, “It depends.” While college is expensive and prohibitively so for many students, that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t worth it. As studies show, college degrees still lead to:

  • greater employment opportunities
  • higher wages
  • better health

Let’s also not forget about Public Service Loan Forgiveness programs that may wipe all or some of your debts if you work for certain employers.

On the other hand, it’s not worth it if you end up saddled with $100,000 of debt and are paying it off for the rest of your life!

Also, consider the fact that only 27% of college graduates work in a field related to their major and 41% of recent grads work in jobs not requiring a degree.

Try thinking ahead, looking at the true overall cost and potential ROI. Research the job market. Find out where and what the growing jobs are along with the in-demand skill sets. Meet with advisors, counselors, and career coaches to discover what the average starting salaries are in the industry you are passionate about.

For example, if you want to become a restaurant owner, chef, or food truck operator, do you really need a four-year degree? Or can you accomplish the same goals by obtaining an apprenticeship or certificate-based training for a fraction of the cost?

Ultimately, it’s up to individual students and their families to determine how much they can and want to spend on college, and to ensure they’re getting a return on their investment. However, there are many ways to save money in college, and avoid student loan debt with scholarships and simple budgeting. Until something changes in the world of higher education, students and families are going to have to continue to rely on a variety of resources to help pay for college and keep student debt at a minimum.

This is such a hot topic – we’ve discussed it extensively on our podcast. You might be interested in checking these episodes out if you’re wondering is college worth it:

** Feature pic by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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