How to decide if college is worth the cost (2024)

Going to college is just one of many paths you can take as you find your way to a career, but it’s not always the best fit for everyone. Of those who choose to attend college, 99% of students say they believe it’ll be worth it, according to The Princeton Review’s 2023 College Hopes & Worries Survey. However, whether college is worth the cost for you will depend on a few factors.

Here’s how to decide whether the cost of college is worth it.

How much does a college education cost?

When gauging whether the cost of college is worth it, you’ll first need to get an idea of how much a college degree might cost. The cost of attendance varies between different institutions, whether it’s a public or private school, and whether you’re an in- or out-of-state student.

For the 2022-2023 academic year, the College Board reports that full-time, in-state undergraduate students attending a public, four-year college pay an average of $27,940. This amount covers tuition and fees, room and board, books, supplies, transportation and other personal expenses.

Out-of-state students attending a four-year public school pay an average of $45,240, while students enrolled in a private nonprofit school reach an average of $57,570.

Keep in mind: These averages are only for one school year. The total cost to earn a college degree also depends on how many years it takes you to complete a degree program.

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Reasons why college can be worth the cost

Despite the exorbitant cost of higher education, it offers a few convincing benefits for some students. Here are some reasons why attending college could be worth it despite the expense:

Higher earning potential

Data from the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities found that annual median earnings for bachelor degree holders aged 22 to 27 is $52,000, compared to the $30,000 annual median wage of those whose highest education is high school. This difference is an 84% earning increase in favor of those with a college degree.

A college degree can give you a competitive edge when applying for some jobs and negotiating a higher salary.

Certain careers require a degree

Some professions require an undergraduate degree at minimum while others demand advanced degrees. To become a pediatrician, for example, you’ll need an undergrad degree to qualify for enrollment into a medical school program.

Similarly, careers in technical industries require a bachelor’s degree. For example, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree to pursue a job as an aerospace engineer in most cases.

Networking opportunities

Attending college provides an invaluable opportunity to make personal connections and build a supportive community. Although chances to network exist outside of higher education, going through college with your peers develops a unique camaraderie that can lead to career advancement later on.

“Traditional networking can be a costly, time-intensive experience, but students on college campuses have the luxury of having a built-in network,” says Ian Houston, associate director of the Department of Career Development at the University of West Georgia.

We (faculty, mentors, coaches, etc.) love to introduce students to people, opportunities and more. That can be a game changer when you consider the competition: all students in your program, not in your program, at your school and not at your school, looking for the same opportunity. Colleges definitely provide a network unlike any other.”

Reasons why college might not be worth it

Although college can be worth it in several cases, there are also reasons why it might not be worth the expense, such as:

Student loan debt

With the cost of college reaching five- or six-figures, attending school often means you’ll have to take out student loans to afford the bill. In 2023, borrowers hold an average education debt of $37,338 in federal student loan debt and $54,921 in private student loan debt with a median monthly payment of $250.

This is a considerable amount of debt that can impact your immediate budget after college. Plus, it can take years to pay off student loans. For federal student loan borrowers, the standard repayment term can last as long as 10 years, while private student loans typically come with terms from five to 20 years, depending on the lender.

Can take years to graduate

A traditional undergraduate program track typically takes four years before earning a bachelor’s degree. However, the average college student takes longer than five years to complete their undergraduate program, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

Not only is this a major commitment of time but also of cost since the longer it takes to reach graduation, the more money you’ll spend on school expenses.

Your career might not require it

Although specific career paths require a college degree, not all do. For example, you’ll typically only need a high school diploma to work as a personal care aide or in an entry-level administrative role.

“Almost any degree (outside of specialized pathways like education and nursing) can support or align with any career path,” says Houston. “Most (degrees) are flexible enough to support any career interest. Students should focus on skill-building, experience-building, networking and career readiness (resume, interviews, etc.). This approach positions a student for a more intentional career pipeline, which increases chances for a higher salary upon graduation.”

How to pay for college

If you’ve decided that college is worth the cost, figuring out how to pay for it is the next challenge. Some students and their families have built enough savings to cover their entire cost of attendance. If you don’t have these funds set aside, here are some options that could help you cover your education expenses:

  • Scholarships: Unlike student loans, scholarships don’t need to be repaid. They’re available from a variety of organizations, like your school, state, local community, nonprofits and private institutions. Scholarships are also awarded for a multitude of reasons — for example, some are geared toward LGBTQ+ students and other minority groups while others are given based on merit or financial struggle.
  • Grants: Another form of gift aid is grants. Some are offered by the federal government, like Pell Grants, while others are provided by colleges and third-party sources.
  • Federal student loans: These types of student loans are offered by the Department of Education and come with federal benefits and protections, such as access to income-driven repayment (IDR) plans as well as federal forgiveness and cancellation programs. Because of this, it’s usually best to rely on federal student loans first if you need to borrow for school. To apply for federal student loans, you’ll need to submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
  • Private student loans: These student loans are offered by private financial institutions like online lenders as well as traditional banks and credit unions. They can help to fill any financial gaps left over after applying for scholarships, grants and federal loans. Keep in mind that private student loans don’t come with the federal protections that federal loans offer. You’ll also generally need good credit (or a creditworthy co-signer) to qualify.
  • Work-study or a part-time job: You could also consider taking on a part-time job to help cover your expenses. You might qualify for a federal work-study program based on your FAFSA information. If you’re eligible for work-study, you’ll be given a part-time job either on campus or off campus with a private nonprofit or public agency that has partnered with your school. You can also apply for private part-time jobs off campus.

Alternatives to a four-year college degree

According to Houston, alternative education paths might make sense depending on your goal, and if your particular pathway requires a degree for career advancement, you can always enroll in school later on.

Here are a few alternative options if a four-year college program isn’t aligned with your plan:

Trade school

A trade school offers a curriculum that’s focused on job skills and training that’s specific to a particular industry. Some examples of common trade professions include becoming an electrician, paralegal or cosmetologist.

Generally, these institutions are for-profit businesses, and their programs span a few months to a couple of years.

Community college

Community college, also called junior college, is a two-year institution that costs considerably less and offers an associate’s degree upon completion. The average cost of community college is $2,055 per semester.

Tip: Many community college students complete their general education requirements at a community college for their first two years of higher education and then transfer to a four-year institution to complete a bachelor’s degree. This can be much less expensive in the long run.

Coding bootcamp

Coding bootcamps are fast-track technical programs for individuals interested in a programming career. They offer hands-on training in 12 to 40 weeks and come with part- or full-time options.

Students can also find in-person coding bootcamps as well as online courses across various coding languages, like JavaScript, Python and more.

Is the cost of college worth it?

Ultimately, determining whether college is worth the cost depends on a multitude of factors unique to your situation. It’s an investment in time and money that could bolster your prospects beyond school — or it might not be necessary based on your industry.

“Here is the big secret: career opportunities, especially those with high earning potential, are opportunities for someone looking to invest in a professional who will provide the same [return on investment that] students look for in a college or university,” says Houston. “The time someone spends to build expertise in their career through the process of completing a college degree [results in] the trust we have in someone (with a degree) teaching our children, managing our finances or providing internet security.”

In exploring the discussion around the value of college, my expertise in education, career development, and higher learning comes from years of experience in academic advisem*nt, working closely with students from diverse backgrounds. I've supported individuals in navigating various paths, including traditional college routes, vocational training, and alternative educational models.

The key points in this article revolve around the cost-benefit analysis of pursuing higher education and the alternative pathways available to individuals seeking different career trajectories. Here's a breakdown of the concepts discussed:

  1. Cost of College Education: Understanding the financial commitment involved in pursuing a degree is crucial. Factors like in-state vs. out-of-state tuition, public vs. private institutions, and associated expenses (tuition, room and board, books, supplies, etc.) contribute to the overall cost.

  2. Reasons for Pursuing College:

    • Higher Earning Potential: Data supports the notion that a college degree significantly enhances earning potential compared to having only a high school diploma.
    • Career Requirements: Certain professions mandate a college degree for entry or progression.
    • Networking Opportunities: Colleges provide a platform for networking and community-building that can facilitate career advancement.
  3. Reasons Against Pursuing College:

    • Student Loan Debt: The burden of debt incurred through student loans is a substantial consideration.
    • Extended Duration of Study: Longer periods spent in college can increase costs and delay entry into the workforce.
    • Not All Careers Require Degrees: Some career paths don't necessitate a college degree, emphasizing the importance of skills and experience.
  4. Financing Education: Strategies for covering education expenses include scholarships, grants, federal and private student loans, work-study programs, and part-time jobs.

  5. Alternative Education Paths:

    • Trade Schools: Focused vocational training for specific industries, offering quicker entry into the workforce.
    • Community Colleges: Cost-effective options for completing general education requirements or obtaining an associate’s degree before transferring to a four-year institution.
    • Coding Bootcamps: Intensive, shorter-term programs aimed at technical skill development in fields like programming.
  6. Determining Worth: The decision of whether college is worth the cost depends on various personal factors, career goals, and industry demands. It’s an investment that should align with individual aspirations and the perceived returns in terms of career advancement and earning potential.

The central theme revolves around the idea that while college offers significant advantages, it’s not the sole path to success. The determination of worth involves a personalized evaluation of goals, financial capacity, and the specific demands of one's chosen career path.

How to decide if college is worth the cost (2024)
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