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College is an exciting time in a young person’s life. But making payments on their student loans long after they graduate? Not so much.
The average cost of just one year at college can range anywhere from $20,770 for a public, in-state university to a whopping $46,950 at a private university.(1) Multiply that by four years, and it adds up. And if you’re taking out student loans to pay for it, you’ll be thousands of dollars in debt before you even graduate.
We see far too many people struggling to pay on their student loans while their future hangs in the balance. It’s a familiar problem that’s only getting worse: America’s total student loan debt is now nearly $1.4 trillion.(2)
It’s never a good idea to go into debt. But despite what you may think, you can pay cash for school—it just takes some work. So before you memorize that certain school’s fight song, ask yourself this question: Is the cost of college really worth it?
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Pros of Going to College
College graduates tend to make more money.
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the median income for a high school graduate is $28,000, while those with a bachelor’s degree make around $42,000.(3) Provided you graduate debt-free, that college diploma could help you build wealth a lot quicker than if you didn’t go to college.
Many jobs require a college degree.
You can choose from plenty of exciting careers without a degree. But certain jobs like teaching, nursing, engineering and law all require at least a two-year degree. Graduating college can open doors to career paths that would be closed to you otherwise. Not to mention having a degree makes you a more competitive candidate in the marketplace even for jobs where a degree isn’t vital.
You learn a lot outside the classroom.
In college, you’re not just learning concepts and taking exams. Your classes help you build lifelong skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, teamwork, and organization. You could gain this experience in other ways, but it’s part of what makes the college experience a worthwhile investment for many.
College is also a great opportunity to meet people from all walks of life and broaden your horizons. You never know what you might learn from someone with a different background than yours—and universities tend to be melting pots of cultures, religions, political views and other beliefs. While your core values will likely remain the same, you’ll hopefully gain a better understanding of where others come from.
You’ll have access to more opportunities.
Internships are one of the best ways to gain on-the-job experience and get a leg up in the job market. But many internships are only available to current students. A college will also have counselors, career centers, job fairs, clubs and volunteer opportunities to help you gain the experience you’ll need to make yourself marketable after graduation.
Cons of Going to College
You might not need a degree to do the job you want.
A degree can open doors, but hard work keeps those doors open. Some of the world’s wealthiest businesspeople didn’t even finish college—think technology tycoons Bill Gates, Larry Ellison and Michael Dell. They’re proof the traditional route isn’t the only path to success.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports that 43% of college grads are working a job that doesn’t require a degree.(4) Don’t dismiss alternatives like trade schools, community colleges, apprenticeships and good old-fashioned entrepreneurial drive to get you the job you want.
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Your degree might not land you a high-paying job.
Sure, they’ll all help you bring home a paycheck—but not all degrees are created equal. The median salary for a history major right after college is $36,000, but a mechanical engineering degree earns around $62,000.(5) You have to consider whether what you’d be making is worth what you’ll be paying for school.
You could regret the experience.
According to a 2017 Gallup survey, 51% of Americans who pursued postsecondary education would consider changing their degree type, institution, or major.(6) If you’re not 100% sure about what you want to do, you could end up making hasty decisions about your college education that you’ll regret later.
You might not even graduate.
You may have every intention of graduating, but the pressure of balancing school, work, family and friends is too much for many college students. The National Center for Education Statistics found that only 59% of college students they surveyed completed their degree within 6 years.(7) And if you don’t finish your degree, that’s thousands of dollars down the drain!
Alternatives to a College Degree
Contrary to popular belief, there are alternatives to college that don’t include working at minimum wage. Becoming a real estate agent, medical assistant or web developer won’t require a college degree—but they will require some training. You can also enlist in the military. And if you do decide to go to college later, you may be eligible to have it covered through the GI Bill. Is college worth it in that case? It’s something to think about.
Are you ready to be the CEO of your own company? Start your own business. Nowadays, you don’t need a degree in business to be in business. You can embrace the entrepreneurial spirit and start your own business in just a few minutes thanks to websites like eBay, Etsy and Amazon.
And don’t forget you could also take free online classes, learn a skill at a trade school, or get your associate’s degree at a community college.
Is College Really Worth It?
Some people go to college out of obligation, but many people go to college embracing the promise that it will help them have a better future. This can be true as long as you manage your expectations and pay for it out of your own pocket.
If you do decide that college is for you, the most important thing is to make sure you can pay for it. Consider applying for scholarships, finding an easy part-time job, or even taking a few semesters off to save up before you go. Believe it or not—you can pay for college without taking out student loans!
Still have questions? The Graduate Survival Guide is the book every high school student needs to prepare for their next step.