Is College Worth the Cost?: The Costs and Benefits of Higher Education

FT Contributor
A thought bubble coming from a newly graduated man in a cap and gown, with cash and coins in it.
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If you’re not sure what career you want to pursue, choosing a college major can seem pointless. Spending four years in school studying subjects that relate to a career you don’t end up pursuing can make you feel like you’ve wasted your time. Not to mention the student loan debt that could be waiting for you after your graduate. According to Forbes, in the U.S. there are 45 million borrowers who owe more than $1.5 trillion in student loans collectively. Borrowers who graduated in 2017 owed an average of $28,650 in student loan debt each after earning their degree.

With all these concerns, you may wonder if earning a college degree is worth it. Whether or not you should attend college is a personal decision. However, it’s one that can be made by analyzing your specific goals and the pros and cons of attending college.

Do You Need a College Degree?

You must decide for yourself if your future goals and aspirations are in line with earning a college degree. By establishing your own career path and identifying the goals important to you, you can decide if pursuing a college education is a part of your lifelong journey. There’s no correct answer as to whether you should attend college and it’s a decision you must make on your own terms.

What Do You Want Out of Life?

To figure out if college fits in with your life plan and goals, you must first decide what’s important to you and what you want to achieve. To better understand what you want out of life, identify your:

  • Important life milestones, such as buying a house, getting married, or having a child.
  • Goals, such as starting a business or earning a certain income.
  • Life experience goals, such as traveling to a foreign country.

When you’ve pinpointed the goals, milestones, and experiences you want in your life, decide if college is also an important achievement for you. While earning a college degree may not be a goal you’ve listed, keep in mind that pursuing your passions, traveling, and raising a family are goals that require income. Your plans for achieving these goals should include a way to make money, which can be easier once you’ve earned a degree.

Career Aspirations

Your career aspirations are directly related to whether or not you need a degree. For example, if you know you want to open your own business, you may not need a college degree. However, if you want to be a lawyer, a college degree is mandatory to get your foot in the door at a law firm.

If your primary focuses in life are career or income-related, college may be an important step to achieving these goals. College graduates earned an average of 56% more than high school graduates in 2015. Since there are many jobs that require a bachelor’s degree, your career-related goals may also hinge on a college education.

Some of the most common and prestigious careers that require degrees include the following:

  • Engineers.
  • Doctors and nurses.
  • Scientists.
  • Veterinarians.
  • Accountants.
  • Dentists.
  • Computer programmers.
  • Architects.
  • Teachers.
  • Advertising executives.
  • Hospitality management.

If a career or a high-paying job is an important life goal for you, a college degree may be necessary to achieve it.

Weighing the Pros and Cons

When you have a deeper understanding of what you want out of life, you can begin to weigh the pros and cons of obtaining a college education.


  • Higher salary: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), bachelor’s degree graduates earned $1,198 per week on average in 2018 while workers with no degree earned an average of $802 per week.
  • More job opportunities: The BLS also concluded that the unemployment rate in 2018 for those with bachelor’s degrees was only 2.2%, versus 3.7% for individuals with no degree.
  • Better health: A study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that college graduates were less likely to smoke, be obese, eat fast food, or drink sugary beverages and were more likely to engage in physical activity.
  • A diverse professional network: When you attend college, you can join groups that allow you to meet people in your target industry, building a valuable professional network before you even graduate.
  • Time to explore career options: By not jumping directly into the workforce and giving yourself time in college, you can explore your career options to ensure you find an industry that piques your interest.
  • Experiencing “college life”: There are many unique opportunities to build lifelong memories in college, including meeting friends, taking group trips, and participating in sports or activities.


  • Debilitating student loan debt: While there are ways to pay for school, every second, students accrue $2,858 in student loan debt. When you graduate college, you may find it impossible to pay back your student loan debt, even with a high-paying job. This can delay your milestones and desired experiences, making it hard to achieve them altogether.
  • Reduction in value of college degrees: Since college degrees are more common, the value of a degree has decreased. According to Forbes, college is the new high school diploma and many companies take it for granted when hiring employees.
  • Underemployment or unemployment: Since college degrees don’t hold their value as much anymore, many graduates find themselves under- or unemployed. Graduates who majored in liberal arts, graphic design, and economics had the highest unemployment rates in 2017.
  • Not graduating: Sometimes life gets in the way and if you attend college but don’t end up graduating, it’s a waste of money and time.

Depending on your career goals and aspirations, you may be able to attend trade school. At a trade school, your studies are hyper focused on the career you want to obtain and you may only need to attend school for two years to earn a degree. Trade schools may also be less expensive and more convenient than colleges and universities, in which case they provide you better value for your education.

Is College Right for You?

If the pros of a college education outweigh the cons and your life goals include earning a college degree, college may be right for you. If you feel a college degree is out of reach, there are ways to manage the costs and ensure you can afford to achieve this goal.

Managing the Costs of College

Student loans and financial aid can help you earn your college degree. After you graduate, you may snag a high-paying job that allows you to pay your student loans off early. However, if this isn’t the case, the student loans you use to pay for college shouldn’t negatively affect your life forever. You can:

Whether or not you decide to attend college depends on your life goals and the experiences you want to have. Consider student loan debt and the career path you want to take when deciding if you want to earn a college degree.

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