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Is college worth it?

by Karen on May 19, 2011

Lately, there have been tons of headlines touting the idea that rising unemployment, high tuition costs, and overcrowding in the post-college job market have made college degrees a poor value. Proponents of this theory believe that other career tracks — such as internships and entry-level positions that don’t require a degree — may be a smarter idea to get students into the work force faster without spending thousands of dollars.

I think this Time article does a pretty good job of dispelling this theory:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010, the median weekly earnings for someone with some college but no degree were $712, compared to $1038 for a college graduate. That’s almost $17,000 over the course of a year and there is an even bigger divide for those with less education. College graduates are also more likely to be in jobs with better benefits, further widening the divide. Meanwhile, in 2010, the unemployment rate was 9.2 percent for those with only some college and more than 10 percent for those with just a high school degree, but it was 5.4 percent for college graduates. The economic gaps between college completers and those with less education are getting larger, too.

These statistics paint a pretty obvious picture. It appears that college graduates are not only less likely to face unemployment, but their salaries are thousands of dollars higher than non-college grads.

That doesn’t mean I don’t acknowledge that there’s a problem, though. As someone who personally made the foolish choice to unnecessarily borrow thousands for a college degree, I think college debt is a serious problem in this country.

That doesn’t mean I regret my decision to go to college. My college education opened doors for me. Not only did I learn valuable skills during my time at college, but I was able to find a job afterward that taught me even more valuable skills — and allowed me to support my husband and me while he earned a master’s degree, which is what allows him to pay our bills now. Do I regret the debt, though? You betcha.

You could argue that a college degree isn’t required for my freelance income. However, it’s unlikely I’d have the skills necessary to earn my freelance income without my degree and previous work experience. Not to mention, I don’t plan to be a stay-at-home mom indefinitely. When my youngest child starts school, I’ll be back in the job market. Depending on how many children we have, it could be a while, but I’m glad I won’t be starting college at that point like my mom did.

I think the question of whether college is “worth it” is silly. The more important question is whether college debt is “worth it.” And to me, the answer is no. The debt isn’t worth living beyond your means as a college student.

Skipping college isn’t the answer. The answer is skipping college debt (or at least as much of it as you can). Attend a state school or community college for all or part of your education. Apply for grants and scholarships. Work as much as you possibly can. Live frugally. Do not use student loans to subsidize your beer and pizza fund or buy expensive gadgets or a car you can’t afford. Work full time and attend school part time for longer than four years.

I’m not naive enough to claim that graduating with no debt is an option for everyone. I acknowledge that middle class students without a college nest egg often have limited options. As someone who attended a state school, worked two jobs in college, received financial help from parents, and still didn’t have enough to pay for tuition and living expenses, I understand that avoiding all debt may not be possible if you want to graduate in under a decade. But the point is to borrow as little as you possibly can — and the ideal is to borrow none.

If you’re a graduating senior, please trust me when I tell you — your first job will not pay you enough to make those student loans payments easy. But don’t feel discouraged enough to skip college all together. An education is absolutely worth the hard work required to pay for it — the debt, however, is not.

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