Is College for Everyone?
Weighing the Pros and Cons
- A college degree can lead to higher income, better health, and greater life satisfaction.
- Steep tuition costs mean many students go into debt without earning a degree.
- While postsecondary education pays off, choice of school and major affect how much.
The question of whether college is for everyone brings together two long-running debates. First, is college actually available to everyone, or do the costs and conventions of higher education prevent low-income students from succeeding? Secondly, is college right for everyone, or are some students better suited to a different form of professional training?
American colleges aspire to act as a meritocracy that lifts up the best and the brightest, but the reality is that equity issues at the K-12 levels impact students' ability to succeed. While 60.1% of students from wealthy families graduate college, just 11.8% of students from poor families finish postsecondary schooling.
“Nine out of 10 new jobs created in the last year have gone to those with a college degree … [These] jobs require a combination of decision-making, communications, analysis, and administration skills …”
The potential benefits of attending college — such as higher income, better health, and greater happiness — hinge on earning a degree. Increasingly, even just landing a job hinges on having this college credential.
In 2013, Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce predicted that by the year 2020, nearly two-thirds of all jobs would require postsecondary education. Data suggests that we passed the two-thirds mark in 2018. And just last year, 90% of newly created jobs went to college degree-holders.
So should you go to college, or not? Below, we introduce the biggest pros and cons of earning an undergraduate degree.
3 Reasons Why You Should Go to College
Education Is a Human Right
International organizations such as UNESCO recognize education as a human right that is "indispensable for the exercise of other human rights." Education produces informed and capable citizens and empowers people to earn their way in the world.
When education is reserved for only those who can afford it, existing inequalities deepen.
“A failure to expand access to higher education will widen the gap between the fortunate few and the disenfranchised many.”
The fundamental need for education is reflected — albeit unequally for underserved student populations — in America's free, public K-12 school system. Several countries, primarily in Europe, have expanded their public education system to include postsecondary education.
The rationale is that a highly educated workforce keeps the country competitive. College degree-holders secure better jobs, earn more money, and pay higher taxes. In short, education equips students for engaged citizenship.
College Degrees Open Doors of Opportunity
Over 60% of all job seekers are interested in jobs that require bachelor's degrees, according to Indeed. Measured by clicks on job listings, this data emphasizes people's desire to establish good careers. College opens doors to most professional tracks, not to mention all of the highest-paying occupations.
No matter what education level you achieve, education pays. Those who receive an associate degree, or even take a year or two of college without graduating, earn about $100 more per week than those with only a high school diploma. Bachelor's degree-holders make $500 more per week.
Many fields require a degree to enter. You can also benefit from being part of a college network. Professors and industry professionals often maintain close ties with students and are accustomed to sending emails and making introductions on students' behalf.
Skills Learned in College Offer Job Security
All postsecondary education aims to equip students for the workforce. But while vocational training centers on hard skills, college primarily teaches soft skills, such as creativity, communication, and leadership. These skills tend to stay relevant over time, whereas hard skills risk becoming obsolete.
“[L]earning how to learn is inherently more valuable than learning how to perform a job function. … [A] four-year college degree continues to be a valid predictor of lifetime earnings …”
Colleges hone soft skills through course requirements like essays, presentations, and group projects. And these assignments can equip students with another marketable skill: digital literacy. Using digital tools and software for homework can help build familiarity with technology, which is no doubt a critical soft skill in today's society.
3 Reasons Why You Should Not Go to College
College Is a High-Risk Investment
The cost of college has risen substantially over time and continues to grow. The promise of high wages convinces students to take whatever loans necessary to get the degree, but mounting tuition costs and the long, four-year runway to graduation means that 40% of students who start college don't even graduate.
“[Some college students] end up taking jobs that are often given to high school graduates, making little more money but having college debts and some lost earnings accrued while unsuccessfully pursuing a degree.”
If only about half the students who attend college graduate, then the chances of college paying off are slim by investor standards. College graduates may earn more, but without a degree, the dividends aren't the same. In the U.S., nearly 4 million students who dropped out of college are saddled with student loan debt.
Not All Degrees Pay Well
College graduates earn more on average, but some earn a lot more than others. The average return on investment (ROI) of college disguises the fact that not all graduates, in all fields, from all schools, can expect hefty paychecks.
Choice of school also makes a difference. The most expensive schools, with the narrowest acceptance rates, tend to produce the highest-paid graduates. Meanwhile, graduates of regional public colleges sometimes make less than those who completed vocational programs.
Jobs for Degree-Holders Are Limited
So many college students gravitate to technical, managerial, and professional majors that the number of new graduates in those fields exceeds the number of jobs available.
Students who can't find work in their field often take jobs that don't require a degree. Currently, 41% of recent college graduates work jobs that don't necessitate a college degree.
“It’s time … to develop credible alternatives for students unlikely to be successful pursuing a higher degree, or who may not be ready to do so.”
The push to get more students through college may be misguided if there aren't enough degree-required jobs to go around.
And while the employment rate for college graduates has declined, the demand for trade professionals has skyrocketed. When a vocational certificate can cost less than one year of traditional college, the actual ROI of college for some students plummets.
So Should You Go to College?
College isn't for everyone, but it should be available to anyone who wants to attend. A college education is useful both because of the skills it imparts and because of the signal that a degree can send to employers.
The high costs and low graduation rates of higher education make college a gamble, but it may be worth the risk if you generally like school and/or wish to pursue a career that requires a degree; otherwise, consider other postsecondary options, such as community college, vocational schools, and online programs — all of which can offer career training for substantially less money.
Postsecondary education can put you on the path to a fulfilling career, and that's a boost to your earning potential you likely won't want to miss out on.