Is College Worth It?

College expenses mean education doesn't pay off for everyone, but most degree-holders earn more over their lifetimes. Your major plays a big role.
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  • A college degree is correlated with higher lifetime earnings for both men and women.
  • Opportunity gaps limit the potential for success for minority and low-income students.
  • The rising cost of college means more students are taking out loans to attend.

In Hasbro's The Game of Life, you have two options: "Start College" or "Start Career." Players who go to college must initially take on a sizable amount of debt, but they also get to pick from more career and salary options later on — just as in real life.

College is often worth the time and cost if your target career requires a specific degree, or if you simply want the college experience. However, the value of college in terms of professional success, personal fulfilment, and financial return remains a point of debate.

Generally speaking, well-paying jobs require postsecondary degrees. Employment data shows substantially higher median lifetime earnings for college graduates. Even people with just some college education tend to make more than those who never attended college.

Although the cost of college continues to rise, saddling some 45 million Americans with student loan debt, higher education still holds real, practical value in today's job market.

The Value of a College Education

To most Americans, college is the first rung on the ladder to success, representing adulthood, personal development, and upward social mobility. The importance of higher education to many students and families gives them the confidence that college is worth the investment.

Over the decades, the number of bachelor's degree-holders in the U.S. has steadily climbed. In 2019, 35% of American adults over the age of 25 had completed four or more years of college — more than double the percentage of bachelor's degree-holders in 1980.

In that same amount of time, however, the price of college has risen sharply. In 1985-86, the average total cost of tuition, fees, and room and board at four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. was $5,504. By 2016-17, this figure had increased to $26,593.

Student loans normally bridge the gap between what students must pay for college and what they can actually afford. Unfortunately, repaying student loans — especially if interest rates are high — can take a large chunk out of a worker's earnings for years after they graduate.

Despite this drawback, data shows that the more postsecondary education you have, the more likely you are to achieve higher lifetime earnings. The jump in estimated lifetime earnings between workers with a high school diploma and those with a bachelor's degree is roughly $765,000. A similar gap in earnings was found between graduate degree-holders and bachelor's degree-holders.

College often pays off, but for some, this return on investment (ROI) is much more significant.

Looking at income data by gender reveals that men make far more than women at all education levels. According to the Social Security Administration, men earn about twice as much as women in their lifetimes.

Due to the gender pay gap, college's ROI remains greater for men. While men with bachelor's degrees report median lifetime earnings of $2.4 million, women with bachelor's degrees make about $1.4 million over the course of their lives — less than men with high school diplomas.

Employment Outcomes Depend on Major and School

In addition to gender, what you study and where you go to school can have a big impact on college's value for you.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Education amended the College Scorecard to include the median earnings and median debt for graduates of postsecondary programs in the U.S. Established to bring more transparency to educational outcomes, the scorecard now allows students to compare majors by the numbers.

Data shows that what you study at college affects your ROI. The average difference in wages between an institution's highest- and lowest-earning bachelor's degrees is almost $33,000.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the highest-paid majors are STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), health, and business. Of these, STEM and business are also the most popular majors, accounting for 46% of college graduates' chosen fields.

The type of institution you attend can also impact your employment outcome. Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce reports that the ROI is very high at small liberal arts colleges; in fact, it's on par with the ROI at many doctoral research universities.

But you don't have to attend one of the country's most selective colleges to find gainful employment. As a whole, college graduates have high employment rates.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 86% of individuals with at least a bachelor's degree were employed in 2018, compared to 72% of individuals with only a high school diploma.

Opportunity Gaps in Higher Education

Achieving success through effort and education is a prominent theme in American meritocracy, but the gap in college opportunity means that not everyone makes it to the starting line. Many low-income and minority students lack equal access to quality schools and academic resources, with these disadvantages beginning at an early age.

Closing the opportunity gap in higher education starts with primary and secondary education, and recent data indicates promising trends in these areas.

According to the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis, achievement gaps for minority students in reading and math declined sharply in the 1970s and '80s before stagnating in the '90s. Fortunately, these gaps have narrowed dramatically in the last 15 years.

Going to college can have a lifelong positive impact, propelling students into good careers and the middle class; however, the upward social mobility that college promises is often withheld from students who lack proper college prep and financial support.

Remedying this situation requires both funding and policy changes, as well as rewriting college admission practices that have known exclusionary effects, such as standardized testing requirements.

Student Debt and Rising College Costs

Outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. made headlines at the end of 2019 when it surpassed national credit card debt. As of the first quarter of 2020, student debt sits at $1.68 trillion.

Many call for the government to forgive student debt, either in full or in part, and to make college free. At present, 70% of students take out loans for college.

The cost of college tuition ticks up each year, according to U.S. News & World Report. And while annual increases aren't always major, they gradually add up.

Interestingly, wages have not kept pace with the rise in college tuition. The median household income is barely higher now than it was 20 years ago.

The rising cost of tuition reflects, in part, the rising cost of running a college. With significant decreases in state funding, many colleges are more dependent than ever on tuition. On-campus amenities, like sports facilities and state-of-the-art labs, are used to attract incoming students, but these ultimately add to students' bottom lines.

What's more, salaries for faculty and staff rely heavily on tuition.

So Is a College Degree Still Worth It?

Possessing a bachelor's degree is positively correlated with both wealth and health, but the pure ROI of college depends largely on your major. Students debating the value of college should compare fields of study while adopting a broader, long-term perspective.

Given the rate of change of technology and the job market, maintaining a successful career may require workers to complete continuing education.

Although attending college isn't necessary for all careers, it's a standard prerequisite for many. Degrees act as currency on the job market, which is why so many people enroll (or re-enroll) at colleges during recessions.

In addition to being more competitive for higher-paying jobs and opportunities for career advancement, degree-holders tend to enjoy their work. A 2014 Gallup poll found that most college graduates like what they do every day.

So is college worth it? Yes, but as with all things in life, you need to make the decision that's right for you based on your personal circumstances.