Video: Is college worth it in 2023?

The value of a college degree was once a no-brainer. But what about today? Is college still worth it?
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Meg Embry
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Meg Embry is a writer at BestColleges covering all things career and education related. An award-winning journalist and editor, she has lived and worked in Canada, the Netherlands, and the United States....
Published on November 16, 2023
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Video Transcript

Meg Embry, Writer, BestColleges: In the 1960s, tuition for a public four-year university was less than $400 a year. And only, like, seven percent of working adults even had a degree, so the return on a college investment was obviously really good. You became one of the best job candidates around because of a degree you could pay for with a consistent summer job.

Fast forward to today — students pay $35,000 to $70,000 a year, and graduate into a job market where, like, 40% of people also have a college degree. Which raises the question: is college still worth it?

Return on Investment

Data shows that the return on investment for a four-year degree is still a net positive for most people, if you do it right.

There are three major returns correlated with getting a degree: career prospects, lifetime earnings, and overall well-being.

Career

First, let's talk career. Most students go to college because they want to get a good job, and college grads do still have a significant advantage on the job market. It's not because a degree sets them apart the way it did back in the '60s, but because degree requirements have become essentially an obstacle to entry for most jobs.

I'm not exaggerating — 62% of employers say they require degrees for entry-level jobs at their companies. In industries that boast the highest salaries, like tech, 81% of employers require degrees for the bottom-shelf jobs.

Whether we like it or not, we're basically operating in what's become a pay-to-play model of employment. Workers who don't or can't go to college face unemployment at twice the rate of those who do go. All that to say going to college seems to be worth it when it comes to job prospects.

Unemployment

Bummer alert! That's not to say a degree guarantees a great job, because it doesn't. In 2022, 41% of college grads were underemployed, which means that they ended up in jobs that don't even require a college degree. I'd argue that college did not have a great return on investment for that 41% who are now paying college loans without earning college paychecks.

In some majors — like the liberal arts, the performing arts, mass media, to name just a few — have unemployment stats that rival or are even worse than the average unemployment numbers. I hate to break it to you theater kids, but your choice of major is probably a risky bet if you're gambling $40,000 a year on getting that big break.

Money

Second, let's talk money. A college degree boosts your earning potential.

The median earnings of workers with a bachelor's degree are 63% higher than the earnings of those who only have a high school diploma. So if a high school degree gets you $1,200 a week, a bachelor's degree gets you nearly $2,000 a week. That's $800 more every week to put towards your rent, groceries, healthcare, or that ticket to Mars you've been saving for, [voice slowly getting louder and more frustrated] so that one day you can escape this extraction labor model that demands you go into tens of thousands of dollars of debt as a teenager before you can even apply for that job you have to have in order to pay for food and shelter as an adult so you don't die! [regular speaking voice] Sorry — I got a little carried away.

At any rate, more education still generally means more money. Over a lifetime, degree-holders can expect to pull in 75% more wages than non-degree-holders, a difference of roughly a million bucks. It's a good ROI.

Not All Degrees Are Equal

Bummer alert! It's important to understand that not all degrees are created equal when it comes to making money. We're not in the '60s anymore Toto — you can't spend four years smoking a little weed, studying a little philosophy, and then go on to become a CEO somewhere just because you went to college.

For the first several years after I graduated, the only thing my philosophy degree qualified me to do was bring a CEO her morning coffee. [joking] Which is why Plato said that the unexamined degree isn't worth getting — or something like that.

Well-being

Third, let's talk about well-being. Improved well-being is an upside to higher education that's hard to quantify.

There's evidence that a college degree may be correlated with positive returns that go well beyond income. Better jobs and better pay can mean access to more resources, and more resources can mean better physical and mental health, greater satisfaction and even a longer life.

Data suggests that people with a college education are more likely to prioritize nutrition and exercise, and are less likely to smoke or experience alcohol or drug dependency. They tend to have access to employer-provided healthcare, and are far less likely to end up in jobs with dangerous conditions that put their health or safety at risk. Communities with higher percentages of degree-holders even experience lower rates of depression and suicide.

All of this adds up to an increased life expectancy by a difference of years. It's kind of shocking — honestly, it's a scandal. But that's a topic for another video.

Degrees and Satisfaction

This is not a bummer alert! On top of all this, 91% of people with a bachelor's degree of any kind report being satisfied with their lives — 91%. I didn't believe it either, but the Academy of Arts and Sciences says it's true. Even the philosophy and theater majors ended up happy, when that's not nothing — we all just want to be happy.

Conclusion

So it's pretty clear. The big picture: a college degree still offers a strong return on investment for most people. It's a shot at better jobs, more money, and a happier, longer life.

Of course, the upfront costs are still a major challenge. It really sucks that in this country, access to higher ed tracks closely with family income, and students who do enroll in college but then never graduate — often for financial reasons — end up stuck with the burden of student loans without getting all of these benefits. I don't want that to be your story.

It's crucial to make sure that your college choice pays off. And how do you do that? I'll break it all down for you in another video called, "How to Make College Worth It." So give us a like, hit subscribe, and turn on notifications if you want to make sure to get the best return on your college investment.