Should I go to college?

If your final year of high school is winding down, you have some big decisions ahead of you. “Should I go to college? — it’s a common question this time of year. And while some people will insist that a college education is non-negotiable, the reality is more nuanced.

College can be a significant investment — a single year ranges from $11,260 for a public four-year school to $41,540 for a private, non-profit four-year school — and some people will need to take out student loans borrow to cover the cost. To decide whether an associate’s bachelor’s degree is worth the time and expense, carefully consider the pros and cons of going to college.

What are the benefits of going to college?

You’ll likely hear all about the benefits of postsecondary education from family members, teachers and high school counselors. And it’s true: the benefits of a college education are substantial. Consider these five standout facts:

1. Bachelor’s degree holders (usually) earn more money

First, the biggest benefit — and it’s a major one — those with a bachelor’s degree tend to earn significantly more than those with less education. Based on median lifetime earnings, those with a bachelor’s degree earn 75% more than those with only a high school diploma, and 40% more than those with an associate’s degree.

Data sourced from Georgetown University.
Data sourced from Georgetown University.

2. A college degree increases job security

Earning a college degree makes it more likely that you’ll find a job and stay employed. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the overall employment rate for individuals between the ages of 25 and 34 was 61% for those without a college degree, meaning about 39% were unemployed. By contrast, the employment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree was 87%; just 13% weren’t working.

3. You can expand your network

When you go to college, you improve your intellectual stimulation and build a social network. Later, the connections you make while in school can help you in your professional life. Being able to tap into your university alumni network or touch base with former classmates can give you an edge in the job market.

4. A degree may give you more career opportunities

Although a degree may not be necessary for some career paths, having one gives you more options. According to Cengage’s 2023 Employability Study, 50% of employers required degrees for open positions. And with some companies, a degree is necessary for promotions and advancement.

5. College degrees are linked to other benefits

College degrees are linked to other major benefits. For example:

  • Those with degrees are more likely to have jobs with health insurance.
  • They’re more likely to have paid time off.
  • They’re more likely to be eligible for remote work.
  • They have higher retirement balances. In fact, those that didn’t attend college had retirement account balances that were 63% lower than those who earned a four-year degree.

Those added perks can enhance your overall health, well-being and financial stability.

Reasons to not go to college

Should everyone go to college? While a bachelor’s degree can be advantageous for many, college isn’t a good idea — or necessary — for everyone. There are some downsides to pursuing a four-year degree:

1. It’s expensive, and you may need to borrow money

As mentioned earlier, college can be expensive, costing anywhere from $11,000 to $42,000 per year. The high cost causes many students to borrow money to pay for school. According to The College Board, 51% of bachelor’s degree recipients graduated with student loan debt, owing an average of $29,400.

2. A degree may not be necessary for your career goals

Although many career paths require degrees, not all do. There are a number of high-paying fields with no degree requirement. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released a list of fast-growing, well-paying jobs that don’t require college degrees.

3. College can be challenging

College can be very challenging, and adjusting to your new course load, dorm life and teacher styles can be difficult. With so many changes, it’s no wonder that many students take longer than four years to graduate, and 36% don’t graduate within six years.

If you decide that college isn’t for you and drop out before earning a degree, you’ll still have to repay your student loans, but you won’t have the benefits of a degree.

Alternatives to college

If you decide that college isn’t the right path for you, there are other options that can help you accomplish your goals:

  • Go to community college: One option is to attend a community college to earn an associate’s degree. There are some fields where an associate’s degree is adequate training, and you have the option of transferring to a four-year school to complete your bachelor’s degree if you wish. Community colleges are significantly cheaper than four-year schools, so it can be a cost-effective choice.
  • Enroll in trade school or a certificate program: Another pathway to consider is trade school or certificate programs. These programs can be completed in a matter of months, and can lead to high-paying careers. For example, the median income for electricians was $60,240, while the median salary for dental hygienists was $81,400.
  • Start a business: Starting a business is one of the most effective ways to increase your earning potential. And if you find a high-need area and provide useful solutions, your income can be significant.
  • Take a gap year: Taking a gap year — where you spend a year after graduating high school working or traveling before enrolling in college — can give you much-needed time to learn and decide what you want to do with your professional life. And if you work during your gap year, you can save money for college and gain invaluable work experience.

Should I go to college?

Whether college makes sense for you depends on your career goals, finance situation and your drive to earn a degree. Although four-year degrees are connected to all kinds of benefits, from higher incomes to higher retirement balances, college isn’t necessary to earn a good salary or to maintain a solid work-life balance. Talk with your family and high school counselor to discuss your options and decide which path forward is best for you.


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