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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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{ 7 comments }

1 Corinne May 19, 2011 at 1:35 pm

I have a problem with all of these statistics – they never seem to account for the other differences that exist between people who finish college and those that don’t. Very important things like socio-economic status, intelligence and drive to succeed, all of which make a huge difference in the job market.

I think the question that needs to be asked is if there is a better/cheaper way to get the knowledge/experience needed to succeed in the career path chosen. My husband is a self-taught computer programmer without a degree and is arguably more successful than many programmers his age with degrees. I have a degree that I used for a year before deciding I didn’t want that career. What I’m saying is I don’t think college should be the default. A lot can be done career-wise in four years without spending $80,000.

2 Caitlin May 19, 2011 at 3:49 pm

I agree with you on just about everything here. I have massive amounts of student loan debt (my only debt). I too went to a state school, but I live in New Hampshire, where the state schools are not subsidized as much as they are in other states (Maine, which is right next to us, costs a quarter to half of what I paid, depending on your economic status). I also worked two jobs and had some help from my parents, and still ended up taking out loans. I also went right from college to earning my master’s degree, because I work in a field where almost all of the full-time positions require the degree (I’m a librarian). I lived at home and commuted to Boston, but my only option was an expensive private school (the other option for school was to move to Rhode Island, but it would have equaled the extra tuition costs in extra living expenses like rent and a new car). I love my job and I’m glad I went to college because I enjoyed and it helped me get to where I am today, but I also regret my loans. I wasn’t perfect about saving money and if I had it to do again I would have gone to community college for the first two years and even lived at home and commuted an hour to the nearest state school, to avoid the loans that I have.

I think another important point that isn’t always brought up is that college is not for everyone, and especially not right away. Most middle class students are pushed toward college, even when it is not appropriate for what they would like to do. And even if it is, I think in a lot of cases (myself included), they could benefit from taking a year or two in between high school and college to figure out or confirm what it is they would like to do. My brother, for example, spent a year and a half in college but didn’t really know what he wanted to do. His friends are graduating this year and he is figuring out what he wants to do, but he didn’t waste that time or money in college.
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3 Karen May 19, 2011 at 4:27 pm

I agree with you, Caitlin. If you don’t know what you want to do, I don’t think it’s wise to go to college and pay thousands per semester while you “figure it out.” It would be better to spend that time working in different fields to figure out a plan before going to school. I know too many people who changed majors 3 or 4 times and ended up in school full-time for 6 years to get a bachelor’s degree.

4 Ericka May 19, 2011 at 7:44 pm

I do think kids need to decide what they want to do before going to college, it should not be an automatic decision. Some just go to school because they are told to and don’t really get anything out of it. My neice went to college for a year and then decided that she wanted to be a hairdresser. I say more power to her for not wasting her time or building up debt. If she decides later to go back at least she will have a clear idea of what she wants to do. I always tell my children to either go to work afterschool if you don’t know what you want to do. Also they can go to trade school if they want. I think some kids need to take a break after high school and figure it out.

5 Ericka May 19, 2011 at 7:49 pm

Just wanted to say that I was one of those people who went to school not knowing what I wanted to do. Fortunately, I didn’t leave school with tons of debt, only about $10K. I floundereded for years finding a job. Now after having 3 kids (14yo twins and 11yo boy) I am going back to school to become a RN. I am trying to go the least expensive route and not going back to a traditional college. Going to a hospital based program is less costly than getting another degree. I will only pay about $14-15K for my nursing certificate. College would cost close to $50-60K. With twin girls entering college in 4 years I need to spend the least amount of money to become a nurse.

6 Brittany May 20, 2011 at 12:13 pm

I haven’t commented in a while. Just wanted to say great post! I totally agree with you. I too am very grateful I was able to go to college and graduate with a very manageable debt load. For me, at least, it was definitely worth the money, though I can certainly see why that’s not true in every case.

I think people should definitely weigh the costs and benefits in every case and not just spend tens of thousands of dollars going to college because it’s just assumed it’s what you’re “supposed” to do. And if people do decide it’s necessary and they’re ready for it, there are many ways to get creative, as the previous poster said — community college for two years, working part-time, work-study programs, scholarships (I can’t tell you how many small, random ones I got because I’m pretty sure I was the only person who applied), loading up on classes to cut off a semester at the end, testing out of classes and earning credit for free, taking certain requirements online at cheaper rates and transferring credits, etc., etc., etc.

I’m just curious to see whether the costs of going to college will ever subside (and hopeful they will). They’re ballooning so fast I can’t imagine how our children’s generation will ever be able to afford it if it keeps up at this pace!

7 Innkeeper Seely May 23, 2011 at 10:07 pm

I have a graduate degree and worked in my first profession for 18 years before changing careers. My father was horrified. His generation had one career per lifetime. The current generation may have four solid careers in a lifetime if not more.

Education is needed for success. That education doesn’t need to be college and graduate school. Trade schools and trade apprentice programs are equally important. We can’t do without plumbers, mechanics and the rest of the trades. Sometimes becoming a skilled tradesman is a path to seeking higher education in a related field and going into it with eyes wide open and more motivation to excell. (Not to mention having an employer that might help with tuition.)

Instilling good personal values and ethics are the starting point. Helping everyone have a good grasp of language, diction and basic math skills is essential. If a person can’t communicate he or she won’t be able to succeed at much. Wasting an opportunity to become bi-lingual (no matter your political views) is a foolish way to miss out on career promotion as the demographics of the country change.

IMHO

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