Depending on your goals, attending college may or may not be the obvious next step after high school. But given that Americans collectively owe more than $1.3 trillion in student loans, it seems appropriate to revisit the question: Is college really worth the cost?
Statistics overwhelmingly say yes, despite the student loan debt you may take on. Getting some level of education after high school — whether at a traditional four-year campus or community college or through a career-specific certificate program — pays out more often than not. Here are 10 data-backed reasons why.
1. Increase your earning potential
There’s proof that the saying “College is an investment in your future” holds up: Bachelor’s degree-holders ages 25 to 34 earned a median income of around $50,000 in 2014, while their peers without college degrees earned $30,000, according to 2015 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
2. Gain job security
We all have bills to pay, food to buy and Netflix accounts to keep running, so having steady employment can bring peace of mind. If you have at least a bachelor’s degree, you’re less likely to be without a job. The unemployment rate for Americans whose highest degree is a bachelor’s was 2.8% in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate for Americans who didn’t attend any college was almost double that, at 5.4%.
3. Get health insurance
Getting a job with benefits, like health insurance, is another reason many students pursue college, says Kim Cook, executive director of the nonprofit National College Access Network. “A degree opens opportunities to jobs that will help them support their families,” she says.
The more educated you are, the more likely you are to have health insurance. Ninety-two percent of Americans age 25 to 64 with a bachelor’s degree had some type of health insurance in 2014, while only around 82% of people with just a high school diploma were insured that year, according to 2015 U.S. Census Bureau data.
4. Learn a valuable skill
Going to college doesn’t necessarily mean you have to move into a dorm on a campus with a grassy quad and stone buildings. You can earn an associate degree in two years or a certificate in less time than that — typically in a few months to a year.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has an Occupation Finder tool you can use to search for potential career options based on median pay or the type of degree needed. For example, you need an associate degree to be a dental hygienist. Dental hygienists earned median incomes of $55,000 to $74,999 in 2015. Electrical installers and repair workers had the same median income that year, and you typically need only a certificate to get a job in that field.
5. Make lasting connections
For better or worse, landing a job often comes down to who you know. Forty-four percent of Americans who were job hunting recently said some sort of relationship — a professional connection, family member, friend or friend of a friend — was the most important resource in their search, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center report.
The people you meet in college — through campus professional organizations like the American Medical Student Association, social groups like fraternities and sororities, and more casual gatherings — could give you a leg up in the job market.
6. Get support as you launch a business
Led by role models like Mark Zuckerberg and reality shows like ABC’s “Shark Tank,” entrepreneurship is exploding as an idealized career path. While you don’t need a college diploma to be an entrepreneur, it certainly doesn’t hurt: a third of entrepreneurs in 2014 were college graduates, according to a 2015 report by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
Many universities are bulking up their entrepreneurship offerings, adding courses and opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience. Some schools, such as Texas A&M University, have on-campus incubators to support student entrepreneurs by providing work space, mentorship and free services including legal counsel and accounting help.
7. Become more financially fit
On top of earning more, Americans with college degrees are more financially secure than their peers whose educations stopped after high school. If you have a bachelor’s degree or higher, you’re more likely to have a retirement plan and to earn more income from investments in stocks, savings accounts and real estate, according to findings compiled in a 2015 paper by the Lumina Foundation, a private group focused on improving America’s college outcomes.
8. Expand your career options
Having a college degree opens doors that would otherwise be closed, giving you a wider selection of jobs. Of 2.9 million so-called good jobs created since the Great Recession, 2.8 million are held by workers with at least a bachelor’s degree, according to a 2015 report by Georgetown University. Although there’s no formal definition of a “good job,” the report characterizes it as one that is full time, pays more than $53,000 a year and likely provides employer benefits such as health insurance and a retirement plan.
“College gives you options, which is the best thing for anyone to have,” says Corey Miles, a sociology instructor at Virginia Tech who was a first-generation college student. “I don’t have to be tracked into a job that I do solely to pay the bills.”
9. Meet your soul mate — maybe
While it’s not necessarily a reason to go to college, the prospect of finding that special someone is a built-in college perk. Around 28% of married couples meet in college, according to a 2013 Facebook study.
If you ever tire of thinking about the practical reasons to get a college degree, thinking about the potential dating pool a college campus provides can be more exciting, Miles says. “Sometimes hearing an academic reason [for college] doesn’t really resonate,” he says.
10. Broaden your horizons
Even if you want to study subjects like philosophy and sociology — topics that are interesting but don’t lead clearly to one particular occupation — college can still be worth the investment. More than 90% of employers say that broad skills, including critical thinking and problem solving, are more important than your major, according to a 2014 report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities that examined the benefits of liberal arts education.
Beyond the classroom, college presents an opportunity to have experiences you wouldn’t otherwise. “It’s a chance to intellectually develop, meet new people and see new places,” Cook says.
Financing your degree
When applying to schools, take advantage of free resources, such as Magoosh, to boost your test scores and make your application as desirable as possible. To cover tuition, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. This is the gateway to grants, scholarships, work study and federal student loans. If you don’t receive enough financial aid, consider private student loans options.
» MORE: How to pay for college