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Is Going to College and Getting a Degree Worth It?

By Kalen Smith

college degree graduatesThe conventional wisdom is to go to college, though a college education is by no means a prerequisite to success. That said, it has been considered a great asset and may open doors otherwise closed to non-college graduates.

But as the world economy changes, traditional wisdom is being questioned. It’s up to you to determine individually what course is best. In other words, instead of blindly listening to conventional wisdom or its opponents, assess the pros and cons of a college education according to your own goals and finances.

Advantages of Going to College

What can be gained from a college education? A lot. Here’s a short list of some of the most valuable benefits:

1. Fulfilling Requirements
For many careers, you don’t have an option. You need a college education if you want a job in that field. If you already know what you want to do, see if your chosen career requires one.

If you can get away with certification courses and on the job training, however, you may actually be able to vault ahead much faster in your field than someone who spends four years in college first. However, if you ever want to switch careers, a college degree might come in handy.

2. Career Advancement
Do you aspire to climb up the corporate ladder? If so, you probably want a college degree. Though your employer is interested in the good work you’ve done to date, they also want to know you have the education required to adapt to a new position.

Moreover, a college degree can illustrate ambition and may give you an edge over other job applicants or, at the very least, keep you competitive with them.

3. Career Direction
College provides students the opportunity to explore new fields and concepts. If you have no idea what career you want to pursue, you might get an idea in college. Or if you generally know what you want to do, college can help you find an area to focus on.

For example, if you’re interested in electrical engineering, you may decide you want to specialize in analog systems after a few courses in that field.

4. Networking Opportunities
You meet a lot of people in college and will always share something in common with others who graduated from your school. Your professors, for example, can recommend you for employment to others in their field or you could end up meeting future partners, bosses, or employees in your undergrad classes or dorm. All these contacts can help you advance your career. For example, someone I knew in my undergrad program is now my business partner.

5. Maturity
A college degree will expose you to a variety of new information, to people with different backgrounds than you, and to new experiences. This undoubtedly will broaden your horizons and, with the right attitude, can help you mature into a thoughtful, curious, and disciplined individual.

You can learn to take responsibility for your education and develop time management and other skills that will serve you for the rest of your life. After all, there are reasons to go to college besides just getting a good job.

college graduation diplomas

Disadvantages of Going to College

For every opportunity taken, there are others lost. The costs of a college education can be steep and extend beyond the financial, especially for those who haven’t thoroughly considered the decision. Potential disadvantages to a college education include the following:

1. Financial Costs
College can be extremely expensive. The average student leaves college with approximately $25,000 in debt. Students attending private schools or highly ranked institutions may owe even more by the time they graduate. Even tuition at public schools has spiked in recent years.

2. Lost Time
Receiving a bachelor’s degree requires a four-year commitment. This lost time can mean foregoing valuable work experience, especially if you’re interested in a career that doesn’t require a college degree.

For example, even though a college education may help you get a retail manager job, you could be better off working for a few years and getting promoted to that position with experience instead. In fact, many successful entrepreneurs have chosen to launch their businesses in lieu of completing college. Peter Thiel, billionaire co-founder of Paypal, has even gone as far as offering scholarships to college students for dropping out.

3. Maintaining the Status Quo
If a student gives up their dreams because they’re expected to attend college, how many other things will they sacrifice their dreams for? Sometimes, attending college can teach certain students to value the tried and true over creativity, individuality, and innovation.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), what’s happening now is that many college graduates are realizing that they weren’t necessarily playing it safe by getting a degree. In fact, they may be finding more opportunity these days in doing things far differently than what their parents and traditional wisdom have instructed.

4. Graduates May Be Overqualified
During rough economic times, graduates may be unable to find work in their own fields. This means they’ll seek out lower paying jobs just to get by. Many employers are hesitant to hire college graduates because they fear they will leave as soon as the economy improves.

In other words, a college graduate who is in debt for their degree may not be able to quickly pay off that debt or even support themselves.

5. Too Many Temptations
Many students who go to college with ideas of study can be easily drawn into excessive partying, Greek life, or alcohol. Since they are typically young and bridging adulthood, these students may not have developed the skills to say no to such temptations – especially if they’ve never lived on their own before.

This can lead to interpersonal complications, or worse, to apathy and substance abuse. Though temptations are everywhere, they are a way of life for many college students and are therefore more heavily pronounced.

College and Career

Do you need a degree for your dream profession? The decision on whether or not to attend college may simply come down to that. There are a number of careers that absolutely require a degree, some where it’s considered preferable, and others where it may even hold you back.

Some common careers and the categories they fall into are detailed below:

College Degree Required

Careers that require at least an undergraduate degree and may also require advanced degrees or coursework include:

  • Physicians
  • Lawyers
  • Most engineers
  • Accountants
  • Social workers
  • Teachers
  • Mental health counselors

College Degree Preferred

Other positions may not require a college degree, but may favor applicants who have one. If you are interested in any of these positions, analyze carefully whether to pursue a degree or get some experience in your field first.

  • Politicians
  • Stock brokers
  • Community organizers
  • Business managers
  • Entrepreneurs
  • Computer programmers
  • IT support staff
  • Child care workers
  • Law enforcement
  • People working in the hospitality industry

College Degree Unnecessary

These are the professions where a college degree does not help much. In fact, if you’re interested in any of these careers, the time you spend obtaining a degree will prevent you from gaining valuable work experience and possibly even increasing your pay. Plus, you’ll likely have to take additional certification courses or fulfill a required amount of on-the-job training after college before you can make a respectable wage.

  • Electricians
  • Auto mechanics
  • Traffic control agents
  • Nuclear plant engineers
  • Receptionists
  • Iron workers
  • Jewelers

Long-Term Benefits of College

Statistically, college graduates have been more financially successful than non-graduates, but only slightly. The average income of a graduate with a bachelor’s degree is $46,000, while the average income of someone with just a high school diploma is $41,000.  For more examples of specific careers, see this list of high paying jobs for high school graduates.

Clearly, the main benefit of attending college is not always a high salary. However, college does hold one distinct advantage when it comes to job security. The unemployment rate of graduates with a bachelor’s degree is 4.3%, whereas the unemployment rate for high school graduates is 9.3%. This is a very significant difference that should be taken into account, especially if job security is very important to you.

Final Word

In the past, students who attended college did better than those who did not and this still appears to be the case. However, the gap between the two may now be decreasing.

There are numerous factors that go into this decision. In addition to those listed above, consider simply what you want to do. Then see if it makes sense cost-wise or career-wise. Remember, you can always start or finish college later as well. Though, traditional wisdom also speaks against that, and it can be harder to take on a full course-load once you’re entrenched in a full-time job and family responsibilities.

But whatever the case, this is your decision – four years of your life are at stake here. How do you want to spend them?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Kalen Smith
Kalen Smith has written for a variety of financial and business sites. He is a weekly contributor for Young Entrepreneur and has worked as a guest blogger on behalf of Consumer Media Network. He holds an MBA in finance from Clark University in Worcester, MA.

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  • Tracy

    I think people need to be more accepting of the idea that going to college or just starting college later in life is ok. A lot of people have no idea what career they want right out of high school, and may benefit more from a steady job first, and college later. My first degree was just a shot in the dark, and I didn’t discover my true calling until a decade later, for which I went back to college for.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/William-Choate/100000526946089 William Choate

    College Degrees for us were well worth it. In jr. High I knew a young father with polio,
    bedridden, whose family did not have to give up their home because he had previous
    disability insurance, but I resolved to be able to earn a living even if handicapped. I used
    my parents’ examples and working their rooming house near campus to make it happen.
    No fraternity, car, nor fancy clothing were required. When Drafted, the B.S. allowed me
    critical positions, so that timely release from active duty was denied because of “selective
    retention”, which we turned into a career. Now retired and partially disabled, we still have
    income from the professional certifications my degrees and military service provided.
    We had learned to take care of those who would be taking care of us.

    • KalenSmith

      Thanks for the feedback William! Glad you were able to get something out of it!

      • rathana

        when did you wrote this article?

  • Alex

    Kalen,

    I was wondering where you got the numbers $41k vs $46k. Numbers I have pulled from census data paint a very different story…with a batchelor’s degree creating a doubling of salary for 35-44 year olds
    (my age) and a 50% increase for 18-24 year olds.

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