Is a College Degree Always Worth It?

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As of early 2016, national student loan debt levels surpassed $1.3 trillion for the first time. That money is owed by approximately 43 million borrowers, with around 17 percent of those debtors in default. Now, the number stands at almost $1.4 trillion.

Crushing student loan debt is causing young people to put off major milestones like marriage, a new car, and a house with a white picket fence. And everyone, everywhere, is asking what should be done about the underlying costs of higher education – including our current president.

“We have to make college affordable for every American, because no hardworking student should be stuck in the red,” President Obama insisted at his State of the Union address in January.

Obama continued: “We’ve actually got to cut the cost of college. Providing two years of community college at no cost for every responsible student is one of the best ways to do that, and I’m going to keep fighting to get that started this year,” he added.

And on and on it goes – a barrage of surging costs with no feasible solution in sight. The cost of a degree has surged more than 500 percent since 1985, and the student debt clock ticks up $2,726 every second.

And here we are talking about how to make it “free.”

Yes, College Matters, but Not for Everyone

If anything in life were free, most would agree a college education should top the list. Then free groceries, free houses, and free Chipotle on Thursdays (I threw that last one in there). Wouldn’t that be grand?

In all seriousness, I often wonder if we’re asking the wrong questions. Instead of trying to make college free for a large swath of Americans, shouldn’t we be trying to figure out when college does – and doesn’t – make sense?

Shouldn’t we be asking if a college degree even matters anymore? Shouldn’t we be looking at the hard numbers – the statistics – and deciding if college is a “must” for where we hope to end up?

The answer will certainly be an overwhelming “yes” for most everyone. After all, research has shown that graduates with a bachelor’s degree earn 84 percent more than those with a high school diploma over the course of their lifetimes.

But not everyone is average, and average wages only tell part of the story. Let’s face it, college isn’t for everyone. And a whole other group of young people would likely be much better off pursuing a two-year technical education or even forging a career in the trades.

See Also: Does Free Community College Make Sense?

The fact is, many well-paying jobs don’t even require a four-year degree. And some don’t require college at all. But you have to dig into the statistics – the reality of the job market – to find the best opportunities.

Careers You Can Start without a Four-Year Degree

Using information from the U.S. Department of Labor, sites like the Bureau of Labor Statistics are able to make fairly accurate predictions about the future job market – which industries will be hiring, and which will whittle their numbers down. They also offer useful data on respective salaries for various positions in nearly any industry, and all of that information can be used to decide where you want to end up.

Anyone can log in and see what kind of jobs will be “hot” in their state during the next decade. Meanwhile, the government provides the same data on the national job market as well.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the following jobs offer generous pay and huge potential in the coming decade – and none of them require a four-year degree:

Candidates with a High School Diploma:

CareerAnticipated Job Growth 2014-2024Annual Mean Wage 2015 (National)
Insulation Workers (Mechanical)19 percent$49,970
Medical Secretaries21 percent$34,330
Brickmasons and Blockmasons19 percent$51,750
Pile-Driver Operators17 percent$55,150
Hearing Aid Specialists27 percent$52,850

Candidates with Some College Experience:

CareerAnticipated Job Growth 2014-2024Annual Mean Wage 2015 (National)
Surgical Technologists15 percent$45,940
Commercial Divers37 percent$54,640
Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses16 percent$44,030
Wind Turbine Service Technicians108 percent$53,030
Massage Therapists22 percent$43,170

Candidates with a Two-Year or Associate’s Degree:

CareerAnticipated Job Growth 2014-2024Annual Mean Wage 2015 (National)
Diagnostic Medical Sonographers26 percent$70,880
Occupational Therapy Assistants 37 percent$58,340
Physical Therapist Assistants 41 percent$55,250
Dental Hygienists 19 percent$72,720
Radiation Therapists 14 percent$84,460

Remember, these are just *some* of the high-paying jobs you can get without a four-year degree. There are dozens of others, many of which offer a creative outlet, the chance to help others, or the opportunity to learn a trade that could evolve into a small business.

See Also: Is Self-Employment More Stable than a 9 to 5?

Think carpenters, plumbers, bookkeepers, and painters who work in their trades while their spouse stays home to do the books. This kind of scenario plays out all the time, and often among those who gave up the idea of a four-year degree to forge their own path.

Reconsidering the Graduate Degree

At the very least, college-bound students should take a long-hard look at the numbers before pursuing a graduate degree. For every individual whose advanced degree was the key to their success, there is a poor soul who borrowed tens of thousands of dollars too much for theirs. As the Wall Street Journal noted late last year, graduate students account for 40 percent of all student loan debts – although they make up just 14 percent of students in higher education over all.

See Also: Is Refinancing My Student Loans Right for Me?

This disparity is likely the result of the way federal loans are doled out. Where federal loans for undergraduate students are capped at $57,500, graduate students are allowed to borrow nearly limitless amounts of money to pursue advanced degrees in everything from women’s studies to law.

Many industry experts argue that overly generous federal loan rules are the crux of the issue – driving up costs for graduates who can’t necessarily afford to repay. And the numbers are absolutely startling. As of January 2015, more than 1.82 million borrowers – mostly those with a graduate degree – owed more than $100,000 in student loan debts.

This is part of the reason many graduate students plunge into the myriad income-driven and public service student loan forgiveness programs. According to the Wall Street Journal, enrollment in income-driven repayment plans alone has doubled to 3.8 million within the past two years. These programs promise forgiveness of student loan debt after a period of 20-25 years, but only after the student has paid between 10-15 percent of their “discretionary income” the entire time. And of course, FedLoan Servicing, the company that handles most of these loans, has had some major issues of its own lately.

These sad statistics make you wonder if graduate degrees are truly paying off the way many students hope. While it’s true an advanced degree is the only way to qualify for some careers, the price you pay for your “dream job” could literally drag on for decades.

Is a College Degree Still Worth It?

None of this is to say that a college degree is no longer valuable. Actually, the opposite is true. The Bureau of Labor Statistics data on earnings by educational attainment shows the proof is in the pudding.

In 2014, average weekly wages for those with a master’s degree were $1,326, whereas those with a bachelor’s degree brought in $1,101. Meanwhile, associate’s degree holders brought in just $792 and those with some college earned just $741.

See Also: 9 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Choosing a College Major

These numbers provide irrefutable evidence that a college degree is normally a good investment. And for some, a college degree is the first step out of poverty and the beacon of hope they need to pursue their dreams.

But for others, pursuing a traditional degree translates into a life sentence of monthly payments – a cycle of indebtedness that exists with elaborate government intervention yet still requires you to send in a check for 20-25 years.

At the end of the day, it’s up to each of us to decide if the long-term costs are worth it. As college costs and debt levels continue to spiral out of control, I suspect more potential students will look for other ways to get ahead.

Do you think college is a “must” for everyone? Why or why not?

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  1. These numbers are crippling – no wonder there’s not much growth in the economy happening when everyone has to put money towards paying off their debt.

    I agree with your thinking – there are a lot of courses, and jobs, where it just isn’t needed. Those jobs just give training anyway, making all that learning pointless.

    But to get your foot in the door with some jobs and at some employers you need that expensive piece of paper. Instead of degrees standing out, now nothing stands out but everyone is in debt.


    1. Yep, you pretty much summed it up. You definitely need a degree for certain jobs. Unfortunately, your degree may never really “pay off” if you don’t earn a lot.

  2. Yea so my parents went to college in Russia back in the 1970’s when Russia was part of the soviet union. A higher education was “free” because you had to take the toughest entrance exams. They were all oral exams, no multiple choice, no written answers. My mom had to take hers twice.

    Then once you got in, you were given a scholarship as long as you kept making A’s and B’s you were on scholarships. If you started getting C’s then you had to pay tuition until you got your grades back up. Also dorms had to be paid for but they were cheap. Even in the soviet union they had to control for supply and demand.

    My biological dad wasn’t Russian, he was Hispanic and won a scholarship because back then the soviet union gave scholarships to international students to promote the soviet union, and my dad took it because an education was an education and he was a poor kid that grew up in Costa Rica.

    I shake my head at “free college” Americans do not know what it means. BTW, my folks left Russia in the 1980’s because they just thought there was no future in a communist country.

    I don’t get what the president is talking because community college is pretty much free if you fill out the FAFSA form and don’t lie. Most of my community college was paid for by the Pell Grants.

    No college is not a must. If you want to be an illustrator or writer you can get away with a 2-year degree or just a portfolio and even if you get a 2 or 4 year degree, people judge you by your portfolio and people skills.

    1. Yes, that’s why I don’t get the allure of “free college.” First, nothing is free. Second, community college is CHEAP and can be free if you’re low income.

  3. I love that you recommend that people consider post-graduation income. So many people make the mistake of racking up crazy amounts of debt to finance their college education despite the fact that their future salary will make it extremely difficult to pay it all off after graduation.

  4. I would tend to agree Greg. I think for many it’s a good thing, especially if the student goes in knowing what they want to pursue and have done the work to make sure it’s something they can earn a decent living at. Unfortunately, not everyone does that and we’ve turned college into so much of a business that it becomes doubly worse. My youngest brother is a high school tech ed teacher and he deals with this on a regular basis. He’s basically told to direct students to college when many of them should consider something else – like a trade. Going to college can be a great experience, but it can also be an expensive exercise if you don’t know what you want to pursue/pursue something that isn’t worth the expense.

    1. I hope my kids consider a trade or community college first. It depends on their areas of interest, of course, but I would support them if they chose a technical education.

  5. Having a plan for what exactly you wants to pursue after college is really the key. Then you can work backwards from there to discover what education is absolutely necessary. The thing is, not all 18 year olds really know what they want to be or do. That’s where community colleges, as well as apprenticeships and internships, could be incredibly helpful. This route isn’t going to break the bank while you are trying to figure out interests and career path.

    1. Yes, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I was 18 years old. Very few kids that age know, and get into debt trying to figure it out.

  6. If your college degree can be obtained without significantly draining your finances or burdening you with never-ending debt installments, then maybe one ought to reconsider the decision. It’s not great to see college grads struggling with their student loans because it means they often end up taking the first job that comes along just to get started on the loan repayment, instead of waiting for the right job. Lots of people become bankrupt because their student debt simply spirals out of control. I’m not suggesting people avoid college altogether, though. There are many ways of graduating without heavily depending on student loans and students should explore that option thoroughly beforehand.

  7. Haha, Kim and I were just talking about this last night. We have been saving for our sons college since he was born and she was worried if there would be enough money in it when the time comes for him to go to school. First off, I don\’t think we will save 100% of what he would need to go to college and I dont want to either. He either needs to work hard to get scholarships, work through school or go to community college. In fact, at this point I don\’t think college is even necessary in some respects. For instance, I am an entrepreneur and no degree is required to be one. However, there are some fields that require a degree, I am just hoping that he doesn\’t want to be a doctor 🙂

    1. My kids are smart and I worry about their future college ideas! I’m saving to help pay now, but I can’t afford a medical degree.

  8. I don’t think attending college is a must for everyone. I have three college degrees and I don’t know if they help me at all, even though they are all finance-related, haha. They did lead me down this path, though, so it was well worth it for me!

    I believe it depends on the person and what they want to do in life.

  9. A really thoughtful and balanced post, Holly. I don’t think a degree is a must for everyone…though with only about a third of Americans over the age of 25 with even a bachelor’s, I’m not sure we’re at the point where enough of us are actually getting a degree.

    $1.3T is a huge figure. But to put it into some context, housing debt is over $8T, and consumer debt is over $3T. In my view, many homeowners would have been far better off taking out five figures of student loan debt rather than the six figures of home debt, if only because the education has the potential to have a great ROI. And, obviously, the consumer debt is far worse a burden to take on than student debt.

    The rub, I think, is that so many people don’t finish the program they start. So they get saddled with debt but don’t get the benefits inherent with actually obtaining the degree. Half measures like that are terribly damaging. If you’re going to start, and taking on debt in the process, be sure to finish if possible. On aggregate, there’s a good payoff on graduation day.

    1. I think it depends – I mean, you can’t live inside your bachelor’s degree in psychology.

      It all depends on the person, the degree, and the ROI as to whether they’ll be better off borrowing money for college or for a house.

  10. We financed our son’s college all the way through his Master’s program with no debt. BUT we started saving for it nearly from the moment he was conceived and he helped with scholarships, advanced placement credits, a couple of commcoll summer sessions and part time work. For his career, he did need an advanced degree, but many people are ill served by the notion that every person needs college. The worst thing we have done in this country is to denigrate the vocational or technical schools and their students as somehow being less than others. Many times they can get their training in 2 years or less and start working that much sooner with little or no debt. The world will always need HVAC techs, plumbers, electricians, dental techs, etc. After all, when you need someone to fix a toilet that won’t flush, who do you call ….a plumber or a philosophy major?

  11. My first degree was in anthropology- and I regret it. If I had to do it all over, I would get a PharmD or just go straight to nursing. I love school and love learning, and my 18 year old self thought learning an entirely new subject was the best idea, figuring I would eventually get a PhD and teach. I wish I had been exposed to more kinds of jobs and roles as a teen, so I could make a better decision. Now, my degree was covered by a full scholarship, so I at least did not start off with massive debt.

    I would recommend anyone thinking of getting an LPN to consider doing an associate’s in nursing instead, and being an RN. There is a huge push to raise the minimum education for nurses to the bachelor’s level, and though it will not be immediate, anyone expecting a 30-40 year career will probably find their role being phased out within 20 years, or a bachelor’s minimum mandated to stay employed. Most hospitals who are Magnet certified require a BSN educated RN or the promise to complete one within 5 years of hire. Many associate’s programs are adding bachelor’s completion programs these days to eventually morph into BSN-only programs.

  12. I think it’s really a must. In this generation, you have to be more competitive and to be so, you need a degree you want to pursue in life and in demand. But, determination and passion are what are important nowadays.

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