Is a College Education Worth It?
The American debate over whether a college education is worth it began when the colonists arrived from Europe and founded “New College” (later renamed Harvard University) in 1636. Today, there are around 20 million college students in the United States, and over 44 million borrowers owe a collective 800.5 trillion in total student debt.
People who argue that college is worth it contend that college graduates have higher employment rates, bigger salaries, and more work benefits than high school graduates. They say college graduates also have better interpersonal skills, live longer, have healthier children, and have proven their ability to achieve a major milestone.
People who argue that college is not worth it contend that the debt from college loans is too high and delays graduates from saving for retirement, buying a house, or getting married. They say many successful people never graduated from college and that many jobs, especially trades jobs, do not require college degrees. Read more background…
College graduates have more and better employment opportunities.
85.2% of college freshman said they attended college to “be able to get a better job.”  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.  Underemployment, meaning insufficient work, is lower for college grads (6.2%) as compared to high school-only graduates (12.9%) and people without a high school diploma (18.7%).  58% of college graduates and people with some college or associate’s degrees reported being “very satisfied” with their jobs compared to 50% of high school graduates and 40% of people without a high school diploma. 
Is college necessary for a successful future
But now that you’re grown up and it’s time to start looking at which university or college you’ll attend after graduation, you realize: higher education is way expensive. Haven’t we all heard the stories—which right about now might be starting to seem scarier than a horror flick—about college graduates who get good jobs that might as well be minimum wage gigs because most of their paychecks go toward paying off student loans—for a decade?
And to pile on even more, lately everyone’s dream employers—Apple, Google and Netflix, to name a few—have stopped requiring a degree to get in the door. Apple’s Tim Cook estimates about half of his U.S. workforce doesn’t have a four-year degree—and he also doesn’t think higher ed teaches the skills business leaders need the most.
So, you could be forgiven for wondering why you should waste four-plus years and a ton of money you might never earn back when you can just jump into a great job right after high school. After all, if the CEO of the most successful company in the known universe is saying it might not be worth it go to college anymore, who are you to say he’s wrong, right? RIGHT.
Actually…not quite. In fact, it turns out that earning a college degree really, truly does pay off. And not just in your eventual paycheck, but in less visible ways that benefit those around you, from your local community to the world at large.
Here are some real-world numbers and facts to ponder as you consider what your next move should be once you have your high school diploma in hand. (Sources appear at the end of this article.)
All the Numbers
- If you have a bachelor’s degree, you’re 47% more likely to have health insurance through your job—and your employer will contribute 74% more to your health care.
- Studies suggest that those who attend at least some college could live seven years longer than those with no post-high school education.
- College graduates are more likely to own homes; three-quarters of bachelor’s degree holders are homeowners, compared to 64% of those with high school diplomas.
- In a time when pension plans are mostly history, college graduates are more likely to contribute to a 401(k)-type retirement plan. Even when high school graduates and college graduates had similar plan access and incomes, the college grads contributed 26% more to their retirement plans.
- Since companies tend to cast a wider recruiting net for high-skilled jobs, college graduates are more likely to have the opportunity to move to find work than those with a high school-only education.
- Over a lifetime, the average bachelor’s degree holder will contribute $278,000 more into their local economy than workers with only a high school diploma. They’ll also contribute $44,000 more in state and local taxes, and $771 more in annual charitable donations.
- Workers who earn a four-year degree can lift wages for other workers. It’s been found that a 1% increase in the college-educated workforce increased wages:
- 2% for those who did not complete high school
- 3% for high school graduates
- 2% for those who completed some college
- According to the Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics, women with college degrees have an 8 in 10 chance of their first marriage lasting 20 years—double the odds for women with high school diplomas.
- The average rate of return for those who earn a bachelor’s degree is 14%—better than the return on investment for stocks (which average 7%) or bonds (average 3%).
- A Business Insider/Morning Consult survey showed that 64% of millennial graduates who had paid off their student loans felt earning their degree was worth it. 48% of those still paying off their loans agreed.
- The three states with the narrowest salary gaps between college graduates and high school-only graduates are North Dakota (38%), Vermont, (42%) and Montana (50%). The three states with the widest salary gaps are Washington, DC (167%), California (133%) and New York (103%). Michigan’s salary gap is 93%.
Of course, statistics don’t tell the whole story. Because while you certainly could step straight out of high school into the high-paying job of your dreams, the odds are slim unless your dream job is an electrical power-line installer or a construction rigger. Both are honorable jobs performed by hard-working people every day, but the fact is they’re tough and physically demanding in a way that not everyone is cut out for.
However, statistics can tell you enough of the story to help you realize that maybe college is the place you want to be after all. Not just so you’ll earn more money—although that’s definitely a nice incentive—or get a cushy job in a comfortable air-conditioned office.
College is where you go to find yourself—and more often than not, the you who comes out with your degree, ready to take on the world, is not the same you who went in four years earlier. During those years, you’ll find friends, mentors, knowledge and inspiration that will help you lay the foundation for a happy, secure and fulfilling future.
If you’re searching for the you that you want to be, we invite you to learn more about Rochester University in your college search. Here at Rochester University, you’ll achieve the academic excellence, global awareness, character and leadership you need to succeed in a changing, exciting and inspiring world.