Is it worth it to go to college? To go through the late nights doing homework, the 8 a.m. classes, the questionable dining hall food, and the possibility of a hefty student loan?
The student loan crisis has had a huge effect on the way many people weigh the value of a college education, and for some very solid reasons.
Among 43 million Americans, federal student loan debt sits at a crushing $1.5 trillion (not to mention an additional $119 billion in private loans). If you have any debt, you probably know the impact even a small amount can have on a person’s well-being. In a survey of 1,000 Americans, almost half said that debt negatively affected their sense of optimism and self-esteem. Another 59% said that debt stopped them from living their desired life.
Despite that, I firmly believe that skipping out on a college degree will come back to bite you. Case in point: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that those with a bachelor’s degree earned a median of $502 more weekly than those with just a high school diploma.
But the value of a college degree isn’t always quantitative. It’s an investment decision — and one that requires a clearly defined plan and purpose. Ask yourself this: What value does it carry to your career path?
Many people might point to the tech industry as a realm that’s not too particular about your college diploma. (After all, you might know a brilliant developer who’s mostly self-taught, living in their parents’ basement — no shame!) And there are about 30 million jobs in the U.S. that offer a healthy median salary of $55,000 without a bachelor’s degree — many of them in growing tech sectors. So, if you’re considering a high-tech career in programming, college might be more of a question mark for you than it is for, say, an aspiring marine biologist.
In general, though, is it worth it to go to college despite the potential for financial baggage? At the risk of going against today’s grain, my answer is a resounding “yes.”
The Benefits of Earning a College Degree
In my humble opinion, there are many reasons why college is worth it(besides the actual degree you’ll get, of course).
One of the big ones is your network. On a college campus, you have access to a swath of people who have dedicated their lives to researching topics that have defined and continue to impact the industry you want to master. At the risk of sounding clichéd, the connections you form can last a lifetime.
In fact, the connections I made before I graduated from college helped me immensely. I now have a group of professionals willing to vouch for me and advise me in my career decisions. I recently scheduled a call with one of my college professors who provided research on a topic I was struggling with — research she and my school’s program were actually going to release a few months later.
I know I’m not alone in this. People might question the benefits of a college education, but it’s hard to question the benefits of community. No matter what industry you’re in, it’s always helpful to build relationships with others blazing similar paths. Going to college gives you this advantage. Even beyond that, university-sponsored career fairs and campus events can be important gateways to mentors who will stick by you for the long haul.
You might be asking yourself this: Don’t all of these benefits come naturally with a good job and boss? Well, maybe. But networking puts up fewer barriers for college students. Once you step into the professional world, there can be unspoken obstacles — colleagues might see you more as competition, for instance, or mentorship opportunities could be less flexible.
3 Financial Planning Questions for Aspiring College Students
Though I’m firmly in the “college is worth it” camp, the only person who can decide what’s best for yourself and your career path is, well, you. And thankfully, there are a few questions that can help guide your college-related financial decisions:
1. How much does it cost?
First, it’s crucial to consider the total cost of attending college. This might sound obvious, but many incoming college students are (rightfully) more concerned with their future social life and independence from parents rather than their resulting financial situation a few years down the road.
Start by sitting down and really considering the cost of college. Think even beyond tuition, though: Evaluate the cost of dorm or apartment living, books (because if anything overdrafts your bank account, it’ll be the textbooks), and transportation. The city your college is in also has implications on how much you’ll spend over the course of your education. And don’t forget the fun stuff, like money for bar crawls, that intramural ping-pong team, or even a victory lap year after you get through the first four. If you don’t account for all of this, it could lend more stress to what should be an enjoyable experience and detract from your education.
2. How will you pay for it?
Check out all of your funding options, but don’t think you have to rely on student loans or personal savings to foot the bill. Be sure to also research the available grants and scholarships (because hey, that’s free money!). When I graduated from high school, I felt social pressure to attend a four-year university straight out of high school. But financially, I would have saved more than $20,000 attending a community college first and knocking out some general course requirements. Don’t be afraid to carve your own path — you’d be surprised at how many others will end up right by you.
3. How much will your degree earn you later?
The rule of thumb is that your student loans shouldn’t be higher than your projected starting salary. Find the average starting salary of your profession or field, and make that amount your limit to ensure the most financial benefit of getting a college degree. Most universities build this into the cost of attendance, which is why some engineering and business colleges have higher tuition compared to other colleges on a university campus.
Ultimately, you might begin to view the value of a college education like you’d view the stock market: market participants determine the worth. As long as consumers are still willing to pay for the price of attendance, the value of a college education will not decline until enrollment numbers fall drastically.
No business will lower prices whenever the demand for a product is still high, so if anything, higher education prices indicate that a college education is still perceived as a valuable asset — but with additional intangible benefits. Just make sure you map out your finances first to get the most out of the experience.