Is College Worth It? Weighing The Pros And Cons Of Higher Education

As an angst-ridden high-school senior, the only task scarier than confronting that precarious Jenga stack of college applications was confronting that inevitable question from adults: “What are you going to major in?”

There’s a huge difference between addressing the what-are-you-going-to-be-when-you-grow-up challenge when you’re in kindergarten and when you’re 17 years old. At age 5, you can totally get away with self-assuredly telling everyone that you plan to be an astronaut. But as a fledgling adult, you’re supposed to be more realistic.


To Study or Not to Study?

So when I told everyone that I planned to study philosophy, people would either stare at me blankly or scoff and retort, “Why, so you can ask customers if they’d like to discuss Nietzsche with their fries?” (Honestly, though, engaging in philosophical discourse over a big plate of fried potatoes does sound amazing.)

In the end, I bounced between majors like a pinball for a while, but it wasn’t from succumbing to the pressure of practicality, nor was it because I found myself bored or disillusioned with any one subject area.

In my case, my erratic path to my psychology degree came from a personal passion for learning everything, from wanting to explore it all.

After living a rather sheltered life through my high school years, college was a whole new world (cue Aladdin theme song). Really, I felt like Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas when he excitedly stumbled upon Christmastown for the first time: “What’s this? What’s this? WHAT IS THIS?”

Is College Worth It?

But let’s face it — college is far from cheap. Hey, it’s been almost 20 years since I entered the college realm, and the sticker shock almost electrocuted me (and my parents) back then.

Over the last couple of decades, the price tag has only skyrocketed. As of 2021, the average cost of a college education — meaning any postsecondary education that offers an undergraduate degree program — is $35,720 per student, per year. That’s a figure that has tripled in the last 20 years. 

But I don’t mean to scare you, dear reader. I’m actually about to argue that, in most cases, a college education is more worth it than not. If you’re a mom who’s still on the fence about whether to send your own angst-ridden teenager to college — or maybe you’re trying to decide whether to return to school yourself — read on, because we’re about to go on a deep dive of the pros and cons (and even how to mitigate the cons).

The Pros: Why College May Be Worth It

College Grads Earn More Money Than Non-Grads

Despite the initial cost of education, college graduates tend to earn more money in the long run. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job-holders with a bachelor’s degree earn an average weekly pay of $1,248, which translates to an average yearly salary of $64,896. Comparatively, job-holders with a high school diploma earn an average pay of $746 per week, or $38,792 per year. That’s a $26,104-per-year difference.

Over a 40-year career, that college degree adds up to more than $1 million in additional income. (By the way, a bachelor’s degree is substantially more valuable than an associate’s degree, too. Job-holders with a bachelor’s degree earn on average $18,772 more annually than those with associate’s degrees.)

College Grads are Less Likely to be Unemployed 

Yep, U.S. adults who have earned a bachelor’s degree are more likely to hold onto their jobs. Also according to BLS, among college graduates aged 25 or older, 4.7% were unemployed in November 2020, compared to 7.4% of those with just a high school diploma.

This statistical difference held true even before the coronavirus pandemic swept the nation. In November 2019, the unemployment rates were 1.4% for college graduates and 3.5% for those with a high school diploma only. Predictably, unemployment rates decrease even more with a higher level of education achieved.

College Grads Live More Healthily

It’s not all about the money.

According to a 2020 study funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), adults with a college education lead healthier lifestyles and have increased longevity compared to those without a degree.

The retrospective longitudinal study, Understanding the Mechanisms Linking College Education With Longevity, attributed increased longevity to college graduates’ superior earnings; better (less dangerous) work conditions; and increased adoption of health behaviors such as exercise, nonsmoking, and avoidance of high-risk drinking.

Conversely, in young adults, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) documents a link between lower education level and health risks including obesity, substance abuse, and injury. Bottom line: pursuing a college education can help enable you to increase your overall health and life expectancy.

College Grads Have Better Quality of Life 

It’s not just physical health that can be enhanced through a college education. According to the 2018 General Social Survey (GSS), those with a college degree reported higher levels of happiness and subjective well being than those with a high-school education or less.

For example, college graduates reported being “very happy” more often (36.4%) than high-school graduates (27.1%). Furthermore, college graduates were more likely to report their lives as being “exciting” (58%) compared to high-school graduates (45.7%).

Another study in the American Journal of Public Health found that, even among adults who hadn’t achieved a bachelor’s degree by age 25, those individuals who eventually earned their degree reported fewer depressive symptoms and better self-reported health at midlife compared to those who did not pursue higher education.

Basically, it doesn’t matter when you go to college — obtaining your degree at any age can promote better quality of life.

College Grads Are More Worldly and Well-Rounded 

Okay, this benefit is more anecdotal than statistical — but it makes sense, right? Even though I couldn’t major in every subject I came across in college, I sure could dabble in it, and I learned generalizable skills and knowledge in each one.

For instance, my favorite philosophy course was Logic, which taught me how to think critically and engage in civil debate. Another favorite was History and Structure of the English Language (in which we actually read Canterbury Tales in Middle English). That one not only improved my vocabulary but also turned me into a veritable trivia champion, which came in handy for the nerd-version of college parties. 

And speaking of parties, being surrounded by such a diverse group of people in the college environment enhanced my social skills, including building meaningful relationships, developing respect and boundaries, perspective taking, cultural sensitivity, and much more. Finally, attending college away from home was my first plunge into the gaping world of “adulting.” Sure, I caused a gas leak or two trying to figure out the stove, and I may have once tried to microwave a grape. I also enraged my dorm-mates when I took it upon myself to remove their laundry so I could get started on my own putrid heap of clothes. But then, that experience taught me yet another important and worldly skill: patience.

The Cons: Why College May Not Be Worth It

That’s not to say that college is always a basket full of kittens, puppies, and rainbows. Sure, there are noteworthy disadvantages to pursuing a college education, too.

Now that you’ve read about the benefits of a college degree, let’s take a look at the reasons why college may not be in your (or your child’s) best interest. 

College Grads Struggle With Considerable Student Loan Debt

You knew this was coming. Now that you’ve earned that fancy degree, the neverending stack of bills is inevitable. Student loan debt can seem crippling, but you’re not alone.

In 2019, more than half of college graduates (62%) had accumulated student loan debt, and the average amount they owed for that four-year degree was $28,950. As of September 2021, U.S. graduates collectively owed $1.7 trillion from federal and private student loans.

The good news: First, it’s reassuring that there are plenty of loans available in the first place — you don’t have to sell a kidney or your first-born child to afford college. Second, once you’ve racked up the debt, you have options to refinance or consolidate your loans. 

And if you want to minimize your debt in the first place? Consider the Federal Work-Study Program, which allows students to earn financial aid in exchange for working part-time. Merit scholarships are another fantastic, often-lucrative option for students who have excelled in academics, athletics, or artistic endeavors throughout high school.

Through a combination of these resources, chances are that your family won’t have to shoulder the entire financial burden of a bachelor’s degree.

Finally, you can save on college costs by enrolling in a state or public school instead of a private university. According to a 2019 U.S. News report, the average cost of tuition and fees at a private college was $35,676, while the costs to enroll in public school were $9,716 for in-state students and $21,692 for out-of-state students.

Sure, Ivy League and other private universities are the most prestigious — but prestige doesn’t necessarily lead to better job opportunities. Plus, recent data from the Georgetown Center Education and the Workforce (CEW) found that students who attend a public college have a greater return on investment.

College Grads Don’t Always Work in Jobs That Require a Degree

Speaking of return on investment: According to new data from the Federal Bank Reserve of New York, 41% of recent college graduates are  “underemployed,” meaning that they work in a job that doesn’t even require a degree.

These job-holders tend to earn 30 to 40% less per week than those working in jobs that do require a degree. Furthermore, only 26% of college graduates work in a job that’s related to their major.

That means there are no guarantees that a bachelor’s degree will lead to gainful employment in a relevant field. And really, since when has life been full of guarantees? 

The Pandemic Forced Colleges to Adopt Remote Learning

Ah, 2020. The “new normal.”

With vaccination rates steadily increasing in the U.S., we almost thought we were in the clear.

Not really.

In 2021, the coronavirus delta variant is surging, and it seems to be more infectious and transmissible than previous variants. Plus, the emerging mu variant, while not yet prevalent, may be resistant to the vaccine and could become problematic if it spreads.

All of this means that the future of higher education is more precarious than ever. Colleges and universities, like other educational institutions, have often been forced to supplant in-person courses with virtual sessions. While many colleges have frozen tuition increases after transitioning to remote or hybrid learning, it still seems unfair to charge the same exorbitant price if a student is missing out on the entire college experience.

Or is it?

Opinions about online learning largely depend on who you are. According to a 2021 report published by Sallie Mae, minority students are more likely to value virtual learning compared to White education seekers. Per the data, 68% of Black college students and 60% of Hispanic college students reported having positive feelings towards online learning. Similarly, 70% of Black respondents and 54% of Hispanic respondents noted that they were equally able to learn from remote courses compared to in-person sessions, versus 46% of White students.

Minority students also report that remote learning helps them avoid feeling marginalized due to implicit or explicit racial bias. And for students with certain disabilities, remote learning has been a game changer because they can perform schoolwork from their beds and avoid having to navigate stairs on college campuses. 

In summary, remote learning isn’t perfect and it’s certainly not ideal for everyone. But for many groups of students who have often felt ignored, virtual classes represent the reasonable accommodations for which they’ve long been fighting.

The Alternatives: When College Isn’t Worth It

Of course, as a wanna-be perpetual student myself, my opinions are a little biased. I thrived in high school, and I reveled in college even more. Sure, I wince preemptively when I hear Walter, my postal worker, slip a few envelopes into my mail slot; except for a few over-eager offers from Hello Fresh, they’re usually bills including loan repayments. Still, overall, I have no regrets.

Nevertheless, I recognize that attending college is a highly personal decision, and — depending on personality, career goals, or other ambitions — it may not be the right one. If a four-year college degree isn’t in the cards, here are some viable alternatives to put your angsty teenager at ease.

Attend Community College

A bachelor’s degree at a four-year university is not the only path to entering a fulfilling career. There are plenty of professions that require only a two-year or associate’s degree from your local community college.

Love to play with young children? Consider pursuing a career as a preschool teacher. Interested in law, but dread the burnout of law school? You can work as a paralegal. Have a passion for medicine, but the MCAT makes you cringe? Become a technologist in any one of the burgeoning medical fields, from radiology to emergency medicine. 

And, unlike me, you may emerge from school debt-free. According to The College Board’s Trends in Higher Education Series, tuition and fees at public two-year community colleges averaged only $3,770 during the 2020-21 academic year.

Enroll in a Vocational/Trade School

Trade schools are a more affordable alternative to four-year institutions, too.

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the total cost of a trade-school education averages to around $33,000 — equivalent to about one year (or less!) at a traditional college. Trade schools provide specific training in technical, mechanical, and other manual skills.

Depending on the industry of certification, these programs last anywhere from several months to a few years. If you’re a person who loves to work with your hands and learn best by doing, attending a trade school can prepare you for a career as an electrician, mechanic, HVAC technician, medical assistant, and a variety of other vocations.  

Take a Gap Year 

Not sure which institution is right for you? Feeling academic burnout? Struggling with anxiety about the future and your identity? Instead of forging full-speed ahead into the next stage of learning, more and more high-school graduates are opting to take a gap year (or years) for self-exploration.

This exploration can come in the form of travel, an internship, an apprenticeship, or volunteerism. And in fact, many colleges and universities look favorably upon gap years to complete service work, with some top institutions offering financial aid to reward this decision.

Skip School and Start a Business

Some of the greatest entrepreneurial minds found their way to earning millions by dropping out of school altogether.

Surely you’ve heard of Elon Musk and Bill Gates, who withdrew, respectively, from Stanford and Harvard universities before they’d completed their degrees. And it’s not just the Ivies that temporarily housed the world’s most brilliant businessmen (and women).

Sophia Amoruso, who founded women’s fashion company Nasty Gal, dropped out of art school at community college. And the CEO of Spotify, Daniel Ek, barely dabbled in technical school. 

Sure, starting a business can be risky — but, then again, attending college is a gamble, too. Pick your poison: Nova Southeastern University Sharks or “Shark Tank”?  

Whatever you decide, the world is your oyster: now it’s time to do the work and shuck it.


Which path did you choose to your career, and would you do it all over again? Share in the comments!

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