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Get your degree if you want to succeed. This is pretty common advice for students who are trying to figure out what comes next in their lives. And education is always a good solution if you want to build knowledge and skills. Plus, a degree is usually a baseline requirement for more and more jobs out there, as many people find when they hit the job market with a high school diploma (or equivalent certificate) in hand.
But a college degree is also a significant investment of time, money, and personal resources, so it's more important than ever to make sure it's the right choice for your own life. Is it worthwhile for everyone? And more importantly, is it worthwhile for you? Let's look at the most important factors to consider as you decide whether or not to go for that college degree.
Consider the debt…
Any conversation about college these days has to involve the specter of staggering debt. Per CollegeData.com, the average price tag for a college education is $25,290 per year for a state college or university, and $50,900 for a private college or university. And tuition isn't the only cost to consider: housing, books, and living expenses all factor in as well.
Many students are able to make these ends meet with scholarships, grants, or working while they also attend colleges. But increasingly, students and their families are turning to student loans to cover college expenses. As of 2017, student loan debt is the second-highest consumer debt category, trailing only mortgage debt, per Forbes. The average student now carries $37,172 in student loan debt as they graduate and prepare to enter the workforce. Given that the average grad makes less than $50,000 per year to start, this can be a significant financial burden at the start of a career. And the default rate for student loans is 11.2%, suggesting that grads are not always able to cope with this debt as they move on after college.
…but also consider the earning potential
While student load debt is becoming a significant national burden, it's also seen as a kind of necessary evil when you look at how much college grads make vs. their counterparts who have a high school diploma or an incomplete college degree.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, college grads experience significantly lower unemployment the more advanced their degrees become. College grads also earn more, on average: the median weekly earnings for someone with a high school diploma jumps from $692 to $1,156 if the person has a bachelor's degree. To put it in even more concrete terms, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, a bachelor's degree (or higher) adds $15,000 per year in income.
So is college worth it?
If we're going by the stats, then, frankly, yes. On paper, college graduates are likely to make more and experience a lower unemployment rate. But life is rarely so straightforward and easy checked off by “yes” or “no,” so let's look at questions you need to ask yourself before you take this step.
What are my goals?
If you dream of becoming an accountant or a computer programmer, then these are fields that require specific expertise and academic credentials. If your ultimate goal is to work in retail management, then that's a field where experience can trump an education credential on a resume. The first step in any “is college for me?” debate is figuring out what your ideal future holds.
Can I achieve those goals in a non-traditional way?
Here's where alternative education programs become a crucial part of the dialogue. It may be that your target profession has specific education and certification programs that require less time and investment than a traditional college program, where you may be taking courses and meeting requirements that have nothing to do with your eventual profession. Allied health professions are a great example of this—many healthcare positions require a degree (like registered nursing or anesthesiologist), but there are plenty of jobs in the field that do not (like optician or surgical technologists) and instead require a job-specific certification and on-the-job training.
Trade schools can be a valid alternative to a four-year program, providing exactly the knowledge and expertise you'll need for your career goals, and often for a more affordable price than you'd see at a traditional four-year school.
What's my financial plan?
If you can afford to pay for college straight up, that's fantastic! If you can't, then you need to have a plan. Whether it's Harvard or a trade school, you'll have to account for the costs of your future educational path. Based on your eventual job goals, how much will you be able to afford to pay on the average starting salary for that job? Sites like Salary.com and PayScale.com are great for helping you play around with that kind of math and determining what people are realistically making in your potential field.
Can I find a less expensive way to build your college degree?
Many students opt to start off their college career at a community college, taking core classes and then transferring to a four-year college to finish the degree. This has a couple of benefits: it's less expensive than four years at a traditional college or university, may cut down on extra expenses like room and board if you can live at home, and also gives you time to decide whether you're on the right path, education-wise. If you get to the end of a four-year program only to discover that you've made a huge mistake in your major or concentration, then you've wasted both your time and (likely) a lot of money. If you take the community college route to study phlebotomy and discover in the process that maybe you're not destined to be a doctor because you can't stand the sight of blood after all, you've saved yourself a very expensive revelation later on.
The bottom line is that college is an asset for the average person, but it might not be worthwhile for you, the non-average person. It's important to consider what your individual career goals are and whether you truly need the expertise and credentials that a four-year school can provide. You shouldn't feel roped into getting an expensive degree just because everyone is telling you that you should. Instead, it should be a decision based on careful thought about what the college degree would mean for your professional life, your future finances, and your ability to commit to that four-year degree. After all, you're unique, and your path to achieving your professional ambitions should be one that works for yourself—not anyone else.
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