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Is a college education worth it?

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No one would argue that the more education you have, the more money you make, generally speaking. However, for many young adults, the investment in a higher education degree becomes a financial burden well into middle age. At least, in the United States.

Author / translator Deborah Moore

No one would argue that the more education you have, the more money you make, generally speaking. However, for many young adults, the investment in a higher education degree becomes a financial burden well into middle age. At least, in the United States.

Created 6 December 2022
Last edited 25 April 2024
Topics Education

Policy positions

Policy position 1

A college education is definitely not worth the time and money expended to get it. It takes up years of your lifetime--years that could be spent earning cash to finance a happier, fuller lifestyle. And the money! Tens of thousands of dollars owed plus interest that take half a lifetime to repay.

Policy position 2

A college education is definitely worth it. Especially in the 21st century. Newer jobs require more education, not less. Blue collar jobs--like those requiring nothing beyond a high school diplma--are disappearing or being done by robots. That, or they pay so little that you can't survive on the wage.

Policy position 3

College might be right for some people, but it is not the ultimate goal that everyone needs to strive for. Newer technologies require on-the-job training, not college classes. If you strive to be a doctor or a lawyer, maybe college is worth the time and money. But if you want to be a housebuilder or start your own company, you'll be wasting your time and money to go to college.

Policy position 4

College is probably the right choice for most people. Jobs in the 21st century require more education than not. Jobs that require only a high school diploma are disappearing. The unemployment rate for people with only a high school education is higher than it is for college graduates. That's only going to get worse.

Story cards

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Junely Merwin was desperate for child care when she started community college in southern California at age 17 while also parenting a 2-year-old. She was living in foster care and had no family to rely on to help with costs. She was relieved when she was accepted into a subsidy program run by a California nonprofit that provided her with financial assistance for her son’s care. Soon after, she managed to get him a spot at a child care center so she could start school. Looking back, Merwin sees finding affordable child care as a critical turning point in her life. It was “my defining moment of pursuing the dream of having a college degree,” she said. “That was my ticket to going to college.”

College Students with Children
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Tabitha Rios hopes to share her experiences as a first-generation college student and a soldier with her daughter, as well as her future students.

When Rios graduated from high school in 2012 she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life. She grew up in a financially unstable home and knew she wanted something better for her future. “I decided that while I waited to start a career I could see the world and meet new people.”

Rios enlisted in the United States Army and served for six years before returning to civilian life and eventually enrolling in the secondary education program at UC Blue Ash College. She says being the first in her family to go to college has been both rewarding and challenging.

First Generation College Student
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I grew up in Washington Court House, Ohio and I graduated from Washington Senior High School.

My parents didn’t know how to help me plan for the transition to college or how to use the resources available. I decided that I wanted to do more than just “get by” with my education, so I got involved with different student leadership opportunities. My goal is to graduate from UC’s public health program and go back to serve my hometown community.

My family was stressed about me going to college, but now that I’ve been at UC Blue Ash and have taken advantage of the amazing resources offered here they only worry about normal things all parents do when their kids are away from home. They’re also incredibly proud of everything I’ve accomplished and how much I’ve grown since starting at UCBA.

First Generation College Student
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I distinctly remember failing a test in fourth grade, which I embarrassingly had to get signed by my mom. I was really upset, and then it hit me: "Forget school. I'm a businessman." I never prioritized school; I honed my skills, learned to sell, and concentrated on what made me happy. The college "brand" will eventually collapse. Parental pressure isn't a good reason to acquire enormous college debt, which is also a bad idea if you want to become an entrepreneur. You get good at entrepreneurship by doing; plus, there are endless free ways to learn about business. Even if you do want a job, many companies don't require a degree — including Google, Apple, and VaynerMedia. Ultimately, the decision is about whether a degree will put you in the best position to reach your personal goals, and that's only true in rare cases these days.

— Gary Vaynerchuk, founder and CEO of VaynerX; five-time New York Times bestselling author of "Crushing It!"

You Don't Need College
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I went to college for five years to get an accounting degree. If I could go back in time, I would have skipped it. Time is money. In most cases, I don't see the value in putting 18-year-olds into massive debt to postpone their career for half a decade. The only reason I would want my daughters to go to college is to meet people and network. Life isn't always what you know — it's who you know.

The Malia Obamas of the world are going to school at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, not a community college or state university. So if you can't get into one of the top-notch schools, you would probably do better by skipping college and focusing on real-world skills like closing deals, negotiating, and prospecting.

— Grant Cardone, founder of Cardone Capital, a $750 million real estate empire; connect with Grant on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube

Non-College Success Story
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"As a teen, I really struggled with myself. I lacked confidence and discipline, found it difficult to focus in class, and didn’t know what I was good at. Because of this, I fell in and out of depression, and my grades fell as a result. After finishing school with some pretty poor grades, I tried doing all sorts of different courses to see if I could find my groove. Having studied and/or worked across design, fashion, marketing, digital media, and front-end web development gave me the experience I needed to start my own business. I always thought I wasn’t good at anything, but it turned out I became skilled in a lot of different areas, which all led to me starting my own swimwear label, Shape of Eve. Life has a way of working out that way; your calling will find you."

Started my own business
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“We have maligned (criticized) an entire section of our workforce by promoting one form of education at the expense of all of the other forms. Forty years ago, we needed more people to get into higher education. But when we gave the big push for college back in the 70s, we did it at the expense of alternative (trade school) education.

That attitude led to the removal of shop classes around the country. And the removal of shop classes completely removed opportunity for a whole generation of kids. The skills gap today is the result of the removal of shop class and the repeated message that the best path for the most people happens to be the most expensive path.

This is why we have $1.6 million in student loans on the books, and 7.3 million open positions, most of which don’t require a four-year degree. We’re rewarding behavior we should be discouraging, we’re lending money we don’t have to kids who are never going to be able to pay it back, to train them for jobs that don’t exist anymore. That’s nuts.”

Alternate Education
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The majority of my extended family were blue collar worker, including those in my immediate family. My father worked 6 days a week for 12 hours a day. I helped him during the summer months and discovered that I had no desire to work that much for relatively low wages. So I decided that I would continue schooling after high school and do something better with MY life. I could not afford not to work and go to school, so I went to night school all year long. It took me 11 years of night school to get my degrees and a few more years to go into business for myself. That was a long long time ago, and I have never regretted it. Most of my cousins aunts and uncles and all of my immediate family are dead and gone.

Blue Collar Roots


Low Income

Low-income students often face the battle of balancing work and school. There are a few ways students can handle this situation. They can either put school off for a period of time to save money for school or choose to pack their schedule and work while they are in school. The challenge with waiting to go to school while working is that they are limited to only a few job opportunities with no higher education.

First-Generation Barriers

Students whose parents have graduated from college benefit from their parent's experience and expertise to guide them through the education process, whereas first-generation students do not have that guidance. Pursuing higher education is no easy task and requires a lot of guidance and support.

Poor Academic Preparation

Not everyone comes to college equally prepared. Attending classes at a university is considerably more challenging than classes in high school. For starters, you need to be far more self-reliant. Professors typically don’t nag you about studying and completing assignments on time. As a result, students who lack self-discipline tend to quickly fall behind. This adjustment can be quite trying for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Students AND Mothers

Single student mothers are growing in both absolute numbers and as a share of the college population. They often face significant financial and time-related obstacles that make it difficult for them to persist to graduation. Investing in programs and supports that target the needs of single mothers has the potential to improve their rates of college attainment, and increase earnings, which can lead to a range of multigenerational benefits.

Mental Health Issues

Emotional and mental health challenges can make it difficult for people to focus on their studies. According to mental health professionals, many students are facing increasing rates of psychological disorders, including depression, anxiety and suicide. According to Active Minds, suicide is the second leading cause of death amongst college students. These issues are not always separate from the other challenges that college students face.

Schedules and Time Management

Every student struggles to manage their time at least a few times during their years at college, but older adults often have more obligations than they did in their younger years. Ongoing employment, families, and other responsibilities can complicate school scheduling, especially when essential courses are only available at limited intervals or times. Classes with flexible hours are often a staple for working adult students.

College graduates make more money.

The average college graduate makes $570,000 more than the average high school graduate over a lifetime.
Career earnings for college graduates are 71% to 136% higher than those of high school graduates.
College graduates earn an average of $78,000, a 75% wage premium over the average $45,000 annual earnings for workers with only a high school diploma.
85% of Forbes’ America’s 400 Richest People list were college grads.

Jobs increasingly require college degrees.

Only 34% of American jobs require a high school diploma or less in 2017, compared to 72% in the 1970s.

During the recession between Dec. 2007 and Jan. 2010, jobs requiring college degrees grew by 187,000, while jobs requiring some college or an associate’s degree fell by 1.75 million and jobs requiring a high school degree or less fell by 5.6 million.

Jobs increasingly require college degrees.

According to researchers at Georgetown University, 99% of job growth (or 11.5 million of 11.6 million jobs) between 2010 and 2016 went to workers with associate’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees or graduate degrees.

College graduates have more and better employment opportunities.

The unemployment rate for Americans over 25 with a bachelor’s degree was 1.9% in Dec. 2019, compared to 2.7% for those with some college or associate’s degrees, 3.7% for high school graduates, and 5.2% for high school drop-outs.

College graduates have lower poverty rates.

The 2008 poverty rate for bachelor’s degree holders was 4%, compared to a 12% poverty rate for high school graduates.

According to the US Census Bureau, 1% of college graduates participated in social support programs like Medicaid, National School Lunch Program, and food stamps compared to 8% of high school graduates in 2008.

The children of college graduates are healthier and more prepared for school.

Mothers with only a high school education are 31% more likely to give birth to a low-birth-weight baby than a woman with a college degree.

18% more children aged 3 to 5 years old with mothers who have a bachelor’s degree could recognize all letters compared to children of high school graduates.

College exposes students to diverse people and ideas.

The community of people on a college campus means students are likely to make diverse friends and business connections, and, potentially, find a spouse or mate. Access to a variety of people allows college students to learn about different cultures, religions, and personalities they may have not been exposed to in their home towns, which broadens their knowledge and perspective.

Student loan debt is crippling for college graduates.

45% of people with student loan debt say college was not worth it.

According to the US Congress Joint Economic Committee, approximately 60% of college graduates have student loan debt balances equal to 60% of their annual income.

Student loan debt often forces college graduates to live with their parents and delay marriage, financial independence,

20% of millennials are homeowners, and most millennials say their student debt has delayed home ownership by seven years on average.

Less than 50% of women and 30% of men had passed the “transition to adulthood” milestones by age 30 (finishing school, moving out of their parents’ homes, being financially independent, marrying, and having children)

Many college graduates are employed in jobs that do not require college degrees.

1 in 3 college graduates had a job that required a high school diploma or less in 2012.

More than 16,000 parking lot attendants, 83,000 bartenders, 115,000 janitors and 15% of taxi drivers have bachelor’s degrees.

Many people succeed without college degrees.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the 30 projected fastest growing jobs between 2010 and 2020, five do not require a high school diploma, nine require a high school diploma, four require an associate’s degree, six require a bachelor’s degree, and six require graduate degrees.

Many students do not graduate and waste their own and their government’s money.

About 19% of students who enroll in college do not return for the second year.

Overall, 41% of students at four-year colleges and universities did not graduate within six years.

Learning a trade profession is a better option than college for many young adults.

Trade professions are necessary for society to function, require less than four years of training, and often pay above average wages.

The high number of young adults choosing college over learning a trade has created a ‘skills gap’ in the US and there is now a shortage of ‘middle-skill” trade workers like machinists, electricians, plumbers, and construction workers.

Tuition has risen quicker than income, making college unaffordable for many.

A Mar. 2017 study found that 14% of community college students were homeless and 51% had housing insecurity issues (inability to pay rent or utilities, for example), while 33% experienced food insecurity (lack of access to or ability to pay for “nutritionally adequate and safe foods”), though 58% of the students were employed and 42% received federal Pell Grants.

College degrees do not guarantee learning or job preparation.

In 2013 56% of employers thought half or fewer of college graduates had the skills and knowledge to advance within their companies.

30% of college graduates felt college did not prepare them well for employment, specifically in terms of technical and quantitative reasoning skills.

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