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Is College Really Worth It? Expert Cost-Benefit Analysis

Posted by Francesca Fulciniti | Jul 2, 2016 9:00:00 AM

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With tuition rising every year, more and more students are asking themselves, "Is college worth it?" Many people believe that getting a college education is an important part of becoming a successful adult. Others, however, find it difficult to justify the increasing investment necessary to earn a degree. There’s no one path that’s right for everyone, and it can be difficult to think critically about the decision to go to college when you’re feeling pressured one way or another.

There’s no simple answer to this question, but there is a rational way to think about whether college is the right path for you. Just as with any investment, you want to think about the relationship between what you put into it (like money, time, and effort) and what you get out of it (like education, networking, and career opportunities). The more you get out of it as compared to how much you put in, the better the investment.

In this post, I'll go through all the potential benefits and drawbacks of pursuing a four-year bachelor's degree so you have all the information to decide for yourself whether college is worth it. 


A Bit of Background on the Value of a College Degree

Before we get started, I want to fill you in on the how the worth of a college degree has changed over time. This way, you'll have a better framework for understanding whether a degree may (or may not) be worth it for you. 

Since the mid-20th century, the US population has become increasingly educated - simply put, more people are getting bachelor's degrees. In this graph from the US Census Bureau, you can see how the percentage of people with BA degrees has increased from 4.6% in 1940 to 32% in 2015:


body_censusBApercent.pngUS Census Bureau Graph


There are many reasons why we've seen these educational attainment changes over time, including:

  • Government subsidies in higher education, making college more affordable (until costs rose to meet demand, thereby making college more expensive).

Overall, there are a lot of financial and political factors that have influenced this significant and prolonged shift in how people view college degrees: now, it's often considered difficult to get a well-paying job (or any job, really) without a college education

That doesn't mean, however, that going to college is always the smart thing to do. It's a big decision, and it's one that warrants some critical thought. To help you think about whether college is worth it for you specifically, let's jump right into the good stuff: the possible investments you have to make to get a college education and the possible benefits you reap as a result. 


What You Put In: The Costs of College

If you're thinking about pursuing a college degree, you'll have to make some sacrifices. The following factors are what I consider to be investments in a post-secondary education. The extent to which these investments affect you depends on your own unique situation, so I'll explain how to think critically about these issues in each section. 

Overall, the major investments you would have to make in a college education are money, time, and effort. Let's see exactly how these might affect whether college is a worthy investment. 



The amount of money that you invest in your education depends on so many factors: your specific school, your financial need, your academic strength, potential scholarship winnings, etc. 

In general, the less money you have to pay for school, the better an investment your education will be. However, even an expensive degree may be well worth it if it pays out in the long run (I'll talk more about that in a bit). 

Tuition is the most obvious cost associated with attending college, but you also have to worry about room, board, books, personal expenses, and transportation. For more information on all the nitty gritty details of educational expenses, check out our college costs guide

The financial investment you'll make in pursuing a bachelor's degree is perhaps the most important investment to consider. The average US college grad leaves school with a pretty significant amount of debt - debt that's sometimes very difficult to overcome. There are ways to make your college education more affordable, but sometimes it's tough (or even impossible) to get those expenses down to a comfortable amount. 


body_burden.pngThere's nothing wrong with paying a lot for school or even having student debt - it's when those expenses become a burden that they become a problem. 



Most people take four years to complete a BA degree. Depending on your career goals, this may represent an opportunity cost - basically, you might be losing out on other valuable opportunities (to gain job experience, make money, or both) because you're spending these four years in school and out of the work force.  

A college education is definitely valuable to many employers, and it's correlated with higher earnings later on in life (I'll talk more about this soon). But building work experience in a particular field, in addition to building wealth, is also valuable - giving up on those opportunities is an investment (or a sacrifice) that you make in order to get a degree. 



It’s easy to sleep in and skip classes once you have the freedom and independence of a college student. But you’re already investing time and money into your education, so it’s important to make the most of it while you’re there.

Building a strong educational background and making professional and personal connections (important benefits of getting a degree) doesn’t just happen - it takes work, and it can sometimes be stressful. It also may involve doing things you don't necessarily want to do, like taking required courses or completing uninteresting assignments. It's important to honestly consider these challenges (and whether you're up to them) before committing yourself to school, especially if it comes with a hefty price tag. 


What You Get in Return: The Benefits of College

You might be feeling a bit iffy about pursuing a degree at this point, but don't stop reading just yet. There are so many potential benefits that come with a college education.

The major benefits I see that come with a BA degree (although there can be many more) are increased employment opportunities, higher income, networking opportunities, personal development, and learning experiences. 


Employment Opportunities

Colleges and universities are recruiting hubs for many industries. When you study at a college or university, especially one that's well ranked, there are often opportunities to meet with corporate employers who come directly to your school to hire students. There are also internship opportunities during summers for that could lead directly to full-time employment post-graduation. 

Employment opportunities offered through colleges and universities extend beyond the corporate world and into academia and professional fields. Any profession that requires a graduate degree (e.g. law, medicine, sometimes business) or is centered around research (basically any job in academia) requires a BA degree first and foremost


Higher Income

On average, people with college degrees make more than people without college degrees. Even though you may sacrifice income opportunities in the short term by seeking a degree, you’ll likely end up making more in the long run. This is especially true for people who go into STEM fields

Employers may also assume you’re better qualified for higher-paying jobs if you have a degree. Some jobs may require a BA even if your degree isn’t related to what you’d be doing on the job.


Networking Opportunities

In a college or university setting, you’ll build a network of friends, but you’ll also develop a network of acquaintances, instructors, staff, and alumni. With these networks, it’s a lot easier to get personal and professional help.

These connections can serve you in many different ways, especially after you graduate. Here are some ways that a college or university network may come in handy: 

  • You move to a new city and need to find a roommate.
  • You’re exploring a career change and want to chat with someone in a particular field.
  • You need some professional guidance or a letter of reference. 
  • You’re looking for a new job.

Harvard Business School estimates that 65-85% of jobs are obtained through networking - if nothing else, it's a huge help when it comes to getting your foot in the door. 


You don't even have to know very many people personally to benefit from a college or university network - alumni networks are a great example of this. 


Personal Development

This benefit is a bit more subjective than some of the other ones I've mentioned so far, but I think it's just as important. People's experiences will definitely vary based on where they go to school and the extent to which they participate in student life - in general, though, here are the ways you can expect to grow and develop on a personal level with a college education: 

  • Get exposure to diverse people and ideas. Meeting people with different backgrounds and perspectives results in greater open-mindedness and a more flexible worldview. One study showed that when people have BA degrees, they're more likely to believe that it's “very important to try to understand the reasoning behind others’ opinions."
  • Meet long-term friends. You, of course, don’t have to be at college to make good friends. What’s special about a college environment, though, is that you’re living and working with hundreds or even thousands of people who are around your age, probably for the first and only time in your life. It’s sometimes more difficult to make friends as you get older - a college is a pretty golden opportunity to meet people.
  • Develop personal and professional interests. Many students head off to school with no idea what they want to do with their lives. College gives you a chance to try out different fields, especially if you attend a school with a flexible curriculum.



Many schools (especially liberal arts colleges and universities) work to produce global citizens: well-rounded students who can be thoughtful and active participants in an increasingly globalized society. You can, of course, learn about things on your own, but college is really an ideal environment to do this - you have a structured learning environment, you're surrounded by intellectually curious peers, and you have access to experts in many fields. 

There’s a lot to learn out there besides what you’ve studied in high school, and colleges offer courses on topics that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to. For example, you might want to explore world languages, niche humanities subjects, or specific and advanced STEM fields - all things that are difficult to study outside of a college campus. 

The thing I see as the biggest educational benefit to attending college is the access to professors, people who have dedicated their lives to research and teaching in a very specific field.  Access to these faculty members is especially helpful for students who are considering an advanced degree. 


When College May Not Be Worth It

If you have any desire to go to college, I strongly encourage you to consider it. Overall, I believe that a college degree comes with more benefits than drawbacks. Of course, there will be many exceptions and individual differences - here, I'll go over some situations where getting a college degree may not be worth it. 



It's OK (important, even) to consider whether college makes sense for you, even if you've always assumed that you would go to college no matter what.


If a Degree Won't Lead to Professional Success

College offers a lot of professional, personal, and intellectual benefits. Even if you’re not sure what you want to do after college, a degree will afford you some flexibility. But you don’t have to go to college in order to be successful - depending, of course, on what career options you’re considering (budding entrepreneurs, for example, may benefit more from real-world experience than from a college education). Some people argue that you can be just as successful with self-directed learning as you can be with a college degree. 

If you know you can graduate from high school and immediately start working towards your chosen career path, college might not be the best choice for you. Alternatively, if you’re interested in a career that requires trade or vocational school, it might be smarter to apply to those programs instead of applying to a four-year program. This way, you can work toward building professional experience earlier rather than later. 


If You Can't Afford It

The total Cost of Attendance at private colleges can come to over $200,000. If you’re responsible for that entire cost and you’re not sure if you can recoup the investment post-graduation, a degree may not be worth it.

If the expense is preventing you from looking into a college education, however, there are some options you should consider before making a decision: 

  • If you're a high-achieving student, you might qualify for generous merit aid if you apply to particular schools. Learn more about colleges and universities that give great merit aid
  • If you think you might qualify for need-based financial aid, you can seek out schools that provide generous funding for lower-income students. Read more about schools with top need-based financial aid programs. 
  • You can apply for scholarship awards, which are great sources of education funding for many students. Learn more about finding and winning local awards, and check out the top scholarship programs for high school juniors and seniors

If money is the only thing holding you back from getting a degree, I urge you to check out these other funding options. You don’t have to be rich to go to college, and a degree doesn’t have to mean crippling expenses. To read more about paying for college, check out these guides: 


If There Are Other Things You Want to Do First (or If You're Unsure)

College is a big commitment - if you want to pursue a degree full-time, you’ll be hitting the books for nine months out of the year. You may want to do other things with your time after you graduate from high school before heading off to college, like get professional experience, travel, or volunteer. 

The bottom line is that you can always postpone the college application process if you have other priorities or even if you want to take time to decide whether college is right for you. You don’t have to go to college right out of high school

Keep in mind that many schools allow you to defer acceptance. It might be easier to work through college applications when you have the support of a guidance counselor and when it's easy to ask teachers for letters of reference. Even if you decide to apply while you're in high school, it's possible to postpone attending the school of your choice for a year or two (or even forever, if you decide it's not right for you). 


Conclusion: Is College Worth It?

Overall, college is a pretty good investment - many students who pursue a bachelor's degree end up reaping the benefits, whether they're financial, professional, or personal. But many others pursue a degree without spending some serious time thinking about whether it's a smart choice. 

You may feel that you should go to college if you want to be successful. As I mentioned earlier in this post, there are many circumstances where a college degree doesn't exactly make professional, financial, or personal sense (at least not at this very moment). It's important that you know it's okay to postpone such a big decision if you remain unsure.

If you do decide to take time to pursue an alternative path, remember that it's important to use your time wisely (else you're subject to the same types of opportunity costs that I mentioned earlier in the post). Building professional experience or engaging in self-directed learning are definitely not easy alternatives to a college education - they're just different. 

Whatever you decide to do - good luck! 


What's Next?

One big part of the college application process is standardized testing. If you're researching whether college is a good choice for you, it may be helpful to learn more about whether these tests in any way predict future income. Some people even think that the ACT and the SAT have the power to predict success more broadly. 

If you're worried more about what the whole college application process will look like and you hope to plan around that, we've got you covered - check out our complete timeline for applying to college


Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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Francesca Fulciniti
About the Author

Francesca graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and scored in the 99th percentile on the SATs. She's worked with many students on SAT prep and college counseling, and loves helping students capitalize on their strengths.

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