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Is college worth it?

Is College Worth It? Reevaluating This No-Brainer

If you’re in the education industry, you might have noticed a trend recently. More and more, the sacred pursuit of a college education is being called into question. Young people everywhere are asking “is college worth it?” 

And they’re not the only ones. Adults, too, are questioning the value of a college education. From CNBC to Forbes to the New York Times, we’re seeing people question, and even challenge, the time-tested wisdom that many of us preach as fact.

Public sentiment about college worth

A generation ago, the benefits of attending college were understood. Every kid on the block knew that going to college provided the safest, most respectable, most profitable career opportunities. You couldn’t find a qualified high school student who doubted that going to college was what they were “supposed to do.”

While enlistment, apprenticeship, and working in the family business were respectable alternatives, college was the number one choice for young people. It was a no-brainer.

Of course, parents, teachers, and students believed that education was good for personal development, but the real allure of college came down to a simple promise: go to college, get a good job.

“A good job”

The guarantee made to college graduates has always been clear. You won’t need to slog through war zones, choke down the soot of a coal mine, slave away in a factory, or clean blood from the slaughterhouse walls. You’re protected. Go to school for a few more years and the grueling, exhausting occupations of the world can’t get their hands on you.

Your future will be free of dangerous and menial labor, because a degree assures its owner a good job.

To many, that’s all a degree does. It’s not about learning or academics or scholarship. College is about bypassing the lowest rungs of employment and making the most of your professional life.

But five or six years ago, we began hearing that college is a losing bet. Maybe it was a comforting story for certain parts of the population who had their own biases against college. Who knows? The bottom line is that this “college isn’t worth it” movement continues to make ripples on the internet and in conversation. Today, people are still asking, is college worth it?

Eventually, we got curious too. So we looked into it.

Is college worth it? (Spoiler: yes)

There are two sides to every story, but the answer here is clear. A college degree is totally worth it.

Really, there is no doubt that a college degree has serious value. According to some assessments, “going to college is the best investment decision of your life.” Check out this graphic from HowMuch.net. It shows that even at its least effective, a college degree is worth over $10,000/year more than a high school diploma.

Is college worth it? This graph says yes!
Data from HowMuch.net, a cost information website. Source: https://howmuch.net/articles/the-best-return-on-college-degree-by-state

When evaluating the value of a college education, the 2015 Gallup-Purdue Index Report made a good point: there is no more authoritative source on the topic of college worth than the alumni themselves.

Strong agreement among alumni

50% of American alumni said that they “strongly agree” that their college degree was worth it. Of course, that number changes according to employment status. Only 31% of unemployed American grads had the same opinion. Interestingly, the GPI report concluded that the biggest factor regarding whether college was worth its cost was the relationships that resulted. (We found similar results when we explored the value of free college a few weeks ago.)

That data shows that college graduates are:

  • 1.9x more likely to “strongly agree” that college was worth it when professors cared about the student
  • 1.9x more likely when they had an encouraging mentor
  • 1.8x more likely when they had one or more professors who excited them about learning
  • And only 1.2x more likely if a paid job or internship resulted from their studies

Money matters, but less so than the personal development commonly viewed as a corollary benefit of college.

Even the media knows the truth

Writing for Forbes at the beginning of 2017, Jeffrey Dorfman remarked that “stories of under- and unemployed college graduates may sell well, but they are mostly myths. File them under the heading of fake news.” The facts, Dorfman insists, are that college grads are twice as likely to be employed as high school grads and three times as likely to be employed as high school dropouts. In other words, it helps – even if it doesn’t help as much as certain people think it should.

The consensus from Time is that the price of college is too high, but not high enough to make it worth skipping. A few years ago, The New York Times brought a pile of data that made denying college’s value nearly impossible.

Despite their willingness to question college’s worth in headlines, most major outlets conclude that a secondary education really does have an overwhelming financial impact.

But there are some changes, right?

Of course, the naysayers aren’t totally wrong. Certain aspects of a college commitment have changed. According to one article from the RAND Corporation:

  • College is more expensive. (Though the most recent increases may be overhyped a tad.)
  • Cost increases force some students to full-time work while studying, which drives them to reduce stress by taking up less challenging classes.
  • Financing the costs creates occasionally untenable debt situations for grads.

It’s just that these negatives don’t outweigh the benefits. While college might not be the value it once was, the truth remains: it’s totally worthwhile. And, despite the likelihood that college will become more expensive in the future, the nature of the 21st workforce makes it probable that its value will increase over time.