The cost and benefits of a college education

As college acceptance letters start going out, we come to the yearly debate on the value of a college education, specifically I mean a traditional 4-year university culminating in a bachelor’s degree. There are other college or post high school options that can be better in some situations. There have been a number of news articles about the value of college education and why it’s not the best option in some cases. Here are just a few recent ones:

Why college isn’t and shouldn’t have to be for everyone
What is it like to be poor at an Ivy League school
Michael Bloomberg’s advice to become a plumber
College graduates don’t think their degree pays off.

These articles may sound doom and gloom, but realize they are talking about some specific cases, and not every college student. When I was in high school, I recall a statistic that said getting a college degree is worth $250,000 in gained wages over your lifetime. I don’t recall the exact number, but the idea is that with a bachelor’s degree, you’ll end up making more money. This is generally true. Employers tend to place value on a degree, and for good reason. Obtaining a college degree shows you have some capability to get through classes, do the assigned work, meet expectations, and generally get things done. One step up from the degree is your college GPA and courses grades which gives a bit more nuanced information, but that’s for another time. You may think it’s unfair that so much is attributed to a piece of paper, and that it’s almost like an entrance requirement. Unfortunately over time that has become the case. Back when colleges were rare, and most jobs were service or manual labor, what I’ll call “brawn” jobs. In those times you got a job based on recommendations or just walking in and talking the manager into hiring you. And it was pretty easy to judge if someone would be able to handle the job just based on a quick evaluation of their “brawn”. Fast forward a hundred years or so and now there are a lot of jobs that require “brains” instead of brawn. Mainly these are technology related jobs or other technical work such as computers, engineering, science, accounting, law, medicine, etc. Now the requirement is no longer are you strong enough or pleasant enough to do this job. So there needs to be some equal way to judge a person’s capability, and thus the degree, GPA, and so forth.

So, the benefit of college is thus “entry” into a given field and the paycheck associated with it. A pretty good benefit in most cases. The cost is primarily monetary. College isn’t cheap, it’s probably the most expensive thing after a house or car for most Americans. The prices range from a few thousand a year for community colleges to over $40,000 a year for Ivy League and other prominent universities. The average graduating student debt is about $30,000, which is a nice car. So cost/benefit decision is then given $30,000 after high school, what is the best way to spend that money for the long term. I think the answer is still a college education, but with a few caveats.

1) Not all degrees and fields are made equal. That statistic from my high school days that said a college degree greatly increases your earning potential is true, on average. But an average means there are some number above and below that average. So not all degrees will provide the same boost to your earning potential. On average, STEM degrees have a higher earning potential than liberal arts degrees. A mechanical engineer makes a higher salary than an editor or musician (unless you’re famous). That’s not a value judgement on any of those careers, just a fact of the current economic climate. So you have to decided if your chosen field of study has a strong potential for a stable job after college. This also relates to what your career goals are.

2) Aptitude and interest for a given field matters. If you were terrible at math in middle and high school, studying physics or engineering will likely be difficult. If you love art, but are studying biology, you may not be putting all your effort into your studies which will cause your performance to suffer. Thus coupled with considering a field of study with good potential, you have to consider how much you care about it and whether you will be able to put your all into succeeding.

In conclusion, college in general is still very much worth the cost, you just have to choose wisely and plan ahead.



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