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Is College An Overrated Waste of Money?

College is more expensive than ever, with a price tag most families can’t manage without assistance. Forbes reveals that over half of bachelor’s degree recipients graduate with an average debt of $28,400. Of those, many struggle to find jobs with salaries high enough to pay off their debt. Maybe it’s time to ask the question—is college still worth it?


College graduates don’t necessarily earn more.

Indeed highlights the most common reasons why college graduates grapple with bills: undervalued majors, “high competition,” “little work experience,” “few or no skills” and “little networking.” That’s why many grads are asking, “What was it all for? All the years of sacrifice, study, and living like a pauper, only to graduate with a mountain of debt and a piece of paper that doesn’t guarantee a decent job?” It’s a salient question.


Of course, countless college graduates do go on to fantastic careers. And historically, college grads earn more over their lifetimes than their high school graduate peers. In 2015, the Social Security Administration wrote that “Men with bachelor's degrees earn approximately $900,000 more in median lifetime earnings than high school graduates. Women with bachelor's degrees earn $630,000 more.”


But times change. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce issued a startling 2021 report titled “The College Payoff: More Education Doesn’t Always Mean More Earnings.” In it, the center concluded that “higher levels of education do not always correspond with higher earnings.”


Per the study’s findings, 31% of workers with a high school diploma earned more than ~50% of workers who held an associate’s degree. Meanwhile, 28% of workers with an associate’s degree earn more than ~50% of bachelor’s degree holders.” Such statistics seem to fly in the face of accepted wisdom…yet here we are. More education no longer equates to more money…at least, not in every case.


A college degree can prepare students with the skills they need to land better-paying jobs than those who didn’t go to college. But just because it can doesn’t mean it will. It’s not automatic but rather depends on the selected major (among other factors). That’s why students must research the careers they want in-depth before applying to any college degree program.


Is the cost of college worth it?

With the average cost of college now topping $35,551 a year, a bachelor’s degree can be a $142,000 investment. Costs vary depending on many factors (for instance, public versus private schools, and in-state versus out-of-state tuition rates). But Education Data reports that with “student loan interest and loss of income, the ultimate cost of a bachelor’s degree can exceed $500,000.”


Meanwhile, Resume Builder’s Stacie Haller, a 30-year veteran in staffing and recruiting, recently disclosed that “34% of employed college grads could have gotten their current jobs without a college degree.” In other words, 1 in 3 people who went to college essentially didn’t have to!


Other key findings from her report:

  • “1 in 5 recent grads are working at jobs that are unrelated to their major”

  • “84% of recent grads say finding a job was ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ difficult”

  • “40% of recent grads still seeking employment have lowered their salary expectations”


With so many grads experiencing difficulty, we suggest college hopefuls keep a few crucial things in mind to make sure they’re maximizing their return on investment!


College is “mainly” for career preparation


Students don’t (or at least shouldn’t) spend tens of thousands of dollars just to become more well-rounded citizens. College is a major investment and should be viewed as such. Students invest their time, money, and hard work in exchange for education and training that should, in theory, pay off later. It should pay off by making the graduate better prepared and qualified to enter a particular range of good-paying careers.


College is not “only” for career preparation


Adding to the above, it’s important to note that students should not view college as merely vocational training. Not that there’s anything wrong with vocational training, but college is designed to be a much broader experience. It’s not “only” about training for a future career.


Consider the concept of Western higher education itself, which is rooted in the tradition of liberal arts education. Under these traditions, students are expected to learn how to learn and how to think for themselves. The college experience was designed to help facilitate those goals.


College offers vast opportunities beyond tuition


Depending on the campus, there are vast opportunities to develop vital skills and abilities via social interaction, professional networking, athletics, arts, and cultural exchange—all of which are educational experiences. Many of these opportunities are included at no cost as part of campus life, while others may come with direct or indirect costs (such as a travel abroad experience). Gladeo encourages students to take advantage of as many extracurricular activities as their schedule and budget allow!


College is a time and place for trying new things within the protective confines of an academic environment. Ideally, it’s where students go to discover themselves, the world, and their place within it. The key to getting their money’s worth is to find and take advantage of their school’s range of opportunities. Otherwise, students miss out on supplementary experiences which add value to their college return on investment.


Many colleges are businesses and students are their customers


One more thing students should understand is the distinction between for-profit and nonprofit colleges. Public schools (i.e., state universities and community colleges) are typically nonprofit. Private schools may be either for-profit or nonprofit.


A private, for-profit school is a business and the students are its customers. Like any business, for-profit schools exist to make money. That’s their main focus and it boils down to a numbers game (meaning the school may be more interested in attracting as many paying customers as it can get, versus truly caring about student retention, graduation, or success rates).


For-profit colleges often market themselves as easy to get into, with convenient online formats and short program completion timelines. Frequently, they’re not accredited and many face significant, ongoing risks of going “out of business,” leaving enrolled students out in the cold.


Yet despite these drawbacks, they are very popular—especially with lower-income, working students. Such students are the bread of butter of the for-profit college industry because they often qualify for financial aid. Are all for-profit colleges bad investments? Not necessarily.


Many are reputable and great at removing barriers to educational access due to their higher acceptance rates and flexibility. But even these may feature higher tuition costs while offering less student support (to students who likely need it the most!).


Conclusion

So is college worth it? Or has it become an overrated waste of money? Clearly, it depends largely on the student’s reasons for going and what they do while there. Too many students are graduating with degrees they can’t or don’t use for a good-paying career, while often being straddled with crushing debt.


Meanwhile, there are numerous exciting career pathways that can be entered into without college, via technical/vocational training, technical certifications (such as those obtained through IT bootcamps), military occupational training, and paid apprenticeships!




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