Is College Worth the Cost?

As the cost of tuition rises and the national student loan debt crisis continues to make headlines, families and students may wonder whether college is still a beneficial investment.

Confidence in the value of education has declined in recent years. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in spring 2020, views that education is worth the cost have decreased by 18%, according to a 2022 Strada Education Network report. The belief that education will help advance one’s career or lead to a stable job has also fallen.

“It’s kind of a paradox because during that same time period, we saw that the job losses were heavily concentrated among people without post-secondary education,” says Nichole Torpey-Saboe, managing director of research for Strada Education Network. “The value associated with a bachelor’s degree is not declining. I think the fear about it is increasing because of the rhetoric around debt. But it still does remain a very good investment for most people.”

The average cost of tuition and fees for in-state students at a public college was $10,388 for the 2021-2022 year, U.S. News data shows. Comparably, private schools cost an average of $38,185 the same year. But that’s just the sticker price. Many families pay much less after financial aid and institutional grants are factored in.

Families must weigh the cost against the personal benefits, experiences and opportunities college can provide, including the improved future salary associated with having a degree.

[See: How Average Student Loan Debt Has Changed in 10 Years.]

Why Go to College?

For most students, experts say, it remains financially worth it to go to college, despite rising tuition.

College graduates learn transferrable workforce skills and tend to have higher earnings and lower rates of unemployment compared to those with just a high school diploma.

Higher Earnings

The median weekly earnings for a worker in the U.S. with a bachelor’s degree is $1,334, compared with $809 for those with only a high school diploma, according to 2021 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Those with only a high school diploma earn a median of $1.6 million during their lifetimes, while associate degree holders earn a median of $2 million, according to a 2021 report from Georgetown University‘s Center on Education and the Workforce. Bachelor’s degree holders earn a median of $2.8 million in their lifetime, 75% more than those with just a high school diploma.

But not all college graduates experience these salary benefits — there are earning disparities based on gender, race and ethnicity. At every level of education, women have lower median lifetime earnings than men. And Black workers with a bachelor’s degree earn a median of $2.3 million in their lifetime, which is 21 percent less than the median for white workers, according to Georgetown’s CEW report.

Labor market outcomes of college graduates also vary widely based on major. Graduates who majored in pharmacy, for instance, make a median mid-career salary of $105,000, which is nearly double the median mid-career salary of a fine arts major — $56,000, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s interactive chart, updated in February 2021.

“For some people, in the right circumstances, the college degree doesn’t pay off financially,” says Nathan Mueller, principal in financial aid optimization at EAB, an education firm that provides research, technology and advisory services.

This is especially true for those who don’t finish their degree, as it can be difficult to pay off any accrued student loan debt, Torpey-Saboe says.

“There also could be situations where people attend programs that are very expensive that may not lead to high earnings,” she adds. “So people need to be aware of that and have transparency around those outcomes.”

One way to weigh the costs of going to college against the financial benefits after graduation is to research median salaries for a student’s expected college major, such as through the College Scorecard.

But Mueller stresses that “choosing the right major in college that fits is more important than choosing the major that offers the greatest pay after graduation.”

[Read: 10 Job Search Tips for College Seniors.]

Employment Opportunities

Rates of unemployment were lower in 2021 among bachelor’s degree holders, 3.5%, than those with just a high school diploma, 6.2%, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

There are also often fewer employment opportunities available if you only hold a high school diploma. Currently, 35% of all job openings require at least a bachelor’s degree to apply, according to a 2021 Cengage report.

Skills and Social Capital

While in college, students build a number of skills that are transferrable to the workplace, including how to think critically and communicate effectively, experts say. Four-year schools, in particular, “will typically incorporate a broader range of experiences outside of the classroom,” like residential living and membership in student organizations, that help build teamwork and leadership capabilities, Mueller says.

Seventy-one percent of four-year graduates say their college education provided them with the skills needed to perform in their first job, the Cengage report found.

Attending college also builds an individual’s social capital, experts say. College students have access to their school’s alumni network and career fairs to connect with potential employers.

Alternatives to a Four-Year Degree

Ultimately, earning a bachelor’s degree may not be the right choice for everyone. Students whose chosen career fields don’t require a bachelor’s degree, or those whose families determine the benefits do not outweigh the cost, might want to begin exploring alternatives to a four-year education.

[Read: 5 Reasons to Consider Community College]

Community colleges, for example, offer vocational training and short-term certificates that can help high school graduates land jobs or ultimately earn inexpensive credits to later transfer to a four-year college. Students interested in fields like nursing, welding, cosmetology or medical assistant positions might consider certificate programs to cut costs.

Another alternative to a four-year degree is an apprenticeship, which combines on-the-job training with classroom instruction.

“As the labor market changes so quickly, employers are looking more at skills-based hiring,” says Alisha Hyslop, senior director of public policy at the Association for Career and Technical Education. “So it’s really important for individuals to think about the job they want and the skills that are needed and pick an education program that’s going to provide them with those skills. Regardless of where it’s located or whether it’s a traditional or nontraditional program.”

But no matter what type of educational pathway a student chooses, it’s important to evaluate the quality of the program, including accreditation and industry involvement in the program.

“If it’s a field that requires you to sit for a licensing exam, like many healthcare fields or a number of fields in the skilled trades, you have to have a state license to practice. You want to make sure that the program is accredited to offer the training that leads to that license,” Hyslop says. To do that, students can check the websites of the program, college or accrediting organization.

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.

More from U.S. News

A Guide to Different Types of College Degrees

What You Need to Know About College Tuition Costs

An Ultimate Guide to Understanding College Financial Aid

Is College Worth the Cost? originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 06/30/22: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

Related Categories:

Latest News

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up