Is College Worth It? What to Consider Before You Enroll

A bachelor's degree is usually worth the cost — if you graduate and are able to pay back your debt.

8 reasons to go to college

Statistics generally show that earning a college degree leads to:

Earnings typically increase with higher levels of education. The median weekly earnings for workers with a high school diploma and no college was $781 in 2020, compared with $1,305 for those with a bachelor’s degree and $1,545 for those with a master’s degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS.

The higher the level of education you've attained, the less likely you are to be unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

College-educated workers are more likely to have employer-provided health insurance and retirement plans, according to the 2019 College Board “Education Pays” report. For instance, 52% of full-time workers with a high school diploma had employer-provided health insurance in 2018, compared with 64% of bachelor’s degree holders and 70% of advanced degree holders.

Going to college doesn’t always mean getting a four-year, or bachelor’s, degree. You can also obtain a certification or associate degree, equipping yourself with the skill set to become, for example, a dental assistant or welder. These certificates or degrees typically take two years or less to complete. Those with an associate degree had median earnings of $938 per week, or around $150 more than someone with just a high school education, according to the BLS.

More and more jobs paying at least $35,000 require a college education, and getting a degree can mean expanding your job options. According to a 2018 study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 80% of well-paying jobs require training after high school, including certifications or a bachelor’s degree.

In recent years, more universities have launched academic incubators, or university-affiliated programs that provide support to student-run startups, including through mentorship or education, and in some cases, access to investors. Academic incubators are offered by schools such as the University of Michigan, Emory University, the University at Buffalo, the University of Washington and many others.

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 it. A 2020 survey from the American Association of Colleges and Universities found that 92% of employers said it was either very important or somewhat important that college students be exposed to a “wide variety of academic topics and disciplines.”

Compared with those who hold only a high school diploma, bachelor’s degree holders are more likely to vote, volunteer and participate in their communities, according to the 2019 College Board “Education Pays” report. Those with college degrees are also more likely to be married, according to 2017 Pew Research data. And a 2021 survey by the Survey Center on American Life found college degree holders tend to have larger friendship networks and are less likely to be lonely compared with those without a degree.

Not sure if college is right for you?
A traditional four-year college seems like the default next step for high school graduates, whether or not they have a career in mind. But plenty of good jobs don’t require a degree.

Do the math on college costs

How to measure earnings vs. debt

Even if you graduate, get a job and start earning income, college may not feel like it's worth it if you’re swimming in more debt than you can afford. Below, you can see the median income by major one year after graduating, alongside the median debt. Use it to help you decide which higher education options are best for you.

The calculation accounts for about 33% of gross income going to federal and state taxes, and 401(k) contributions. It also assumes a 10-year repayment schedule and a 4.99% interest rate, which is the 2022-23 federal student loan interest rate for undergraduate direct loans.

Keep in mind that some colleges are more expensive than others. If the median debt for your major is unaffordable based on median income, that isn’t to say you have to choose another major. Instead, consider all college and funding options available to you and compare the prices of each.

College Return on Investment Calculator

Will a degree pay off for you?

You can never predict your post-education future, but these steps can help you make the best possible choice:

  • Compare outcomes for different majors: Potential earnings shouldn’t be the only factor behind your choice of major; your interests and skills are important, too. But if you choose a lower-earning major, try to take on less debt to avoid being overburdened when it’s time to repay.

  • Assess earning potential: How easily you'll find work and how much you'll earn often depends on the degree level you earn, your major and your school. Use the calculator below to see the median debt upon graduation by major, as well as incomes one year after leaving school.

  • Understand college costs: The average in-state cost, including tuition and room and board, of a four-year, public university was $22,690 for the 2021-22 school year, according to the College Board. Nonetheless, many parents and high school students are unclear about what college will end up costing. A study from Fidelity, a financial services company, found that one-quarter of high school parents thought the full cost of college for one year would be less than $5,000; 38% of high school students thought the same.

  • Determine how much debt you'll take on: To estimate what a manageable college debt load looks like for you, aim for student loan payments that don’t exceed 10% of projected after-tax monthly income your first year out of school. For example, someone earning $34,414 a year — the median salary one year after graduating for the salaries listed in the calculator — shouldn’t be paying more than $192 a month toward student debt.

  • Make a plan for completion: Without a degree, you won’t reap the earnings and employment benefits of higher education. If you take out loans to start a degree and don’t finish, you’ll also be saddled with debt. Starting and not finishing a degree means you’ll be about four times more likely to default on student debt compared with college graduates, according to data cited in a 2018 report by the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization focused on public policy.

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