Updated January 20, 2015

Infographic: Is College Worth It?

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Are the thousands of dollars you spend on a college education really worth it? The answer is probably, based on current employment statistics. However, this is a significant shift from what the answer would have been a few years ago.

Economic conditions and changing cultural perceptions have made the traditional college route seem less like a necessity and more like just an option – one of several paths for high school graduates to consider.

Is college worth it – in this economy?

From a salary standpoint, college graduates still have a clear advantage. Most estimates put the average annual salary for young, college-educated workers at about $10,000 above the average earnings of their non-college-educated peers, and the gap grows as the two groups age.

College graduates have another important advantage as well: lower unemployment rates. This is true even in today’s economic climate, which has resulted in higher unemployment for almost every category of worker in the country. As a group, workers who did not attend college faced the highest increases in their unemployment rate during the recession.

The recent recession also showed that workers with college degrees enjoy better wage stability in unfavorable economic climates. While salary rates declined for everyone, non-college graduates saw declines twice as large as people with degrees. This combination of better pay, better stability, and better employment outlook makes a strong case for a college education.

That’s a motivating factor that has persisted for years. “I knew, from observing the financial struggles my parents had in blue-collar work, that I didn't want to go the route of jumping from one low-paid job to another,” says Rachelle Burns, director of TRIO-Student Support Services at Pensacola State College.

Is college worth the cost?

The better job and salary prospects that go along with a college education require not only a lot of work and a large time commitment but a major upfront investment, as well. Public universities cost upwards of $17,000 per year, and private institutions can cost $40,000 or more. Over four years, the cost of a degree can easily reach or exceed $100,000 in tuition alone.

This means that college graduates earning an average of $10,000 more in salary each year will need to work for 10 full years to catch up to a non-college graduate who didn’t spend all that money out of pocket to earn a degree. For someone who would be relying on student loans to pay for their education, skipping college also means not being saddled with major amounts of debt at the beginning of adult life.

In recent years, there’s been a backlash against the presumption that everyone should go to college. Prominent executives have questioned whether the benefits outweigh the costs, and even some university presidents have suggested the value of college is only “fair.” Additionally, popular figures in today’s culture have made it cool to be a college dropout or to not have attended at all. Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Jack Dorsey are just a few of the entrepreneurs-turned-technology moguls who have been practically transformed into rock stars. There are enough such success stories now that high school students considering what to do after graduation have a reason to believe they can have successful careers without spending four more years in a classroom. In some ways, that’s an appealing thought (of course, it helps to be naturally smart and innovative).

Alternatives to traditional college

Attending a four-year university isn’t the only way to get a college education. Two common alternatives are community colleges, which tend to specialize in associate degrees earned in two years, and online education. But, since both of these options lack the prestige of a four-year bachelor’s degree from a college or university, are they worth the time and effort they require?

Is community college worth it?
A community college can be a great way to get half of the credits required for a bachelor’s degree completed at a much cheaper price. If that’s the reason for attending, then yes, it’s probably worthwhile. If the goal is just to get an associate’s degree, though, the answer is less clear. Associate degree holders don’t enjoy quite as much stability or earning potential as bachelor’s degree holders, and earning the degree – though cheaper than a bachelor’s – is not free. Interesting to note, the same study that found that people without a college education saw wage declines during the recession twice as great as college graduates also found that wage declines for people with associate degrees were even higher – 2.5 times the decline in bachelor’s degree salaries.

Is online college worth it?
Degrees earned online share some of the same problems as associate degrees – they indicate some commitment to higher education, but they just don’t hold the stature of a traditional bachelor’s degree. The exception to this rule is the online degrees offered by traditional four-year schools, which are becoming more and more common. Either way, an online degree may result in more upward mobility for people in white-collar careers compared to their colleagues who don’t have a completed degree of any kind.

Whether a college degree is worthwhile depends almost entirely on the career path you’re interested in pursuing. While some fields like law and medicine have well-known educational requirements, careers in other industries like business, customer service, and even some areas of technology have less steadfast requirements. The best way to determine if a degree is worthwhile is to take a realistic look at your earning potential and job prospects with and without one.

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Infographics: Education Earnings
Infographics: Education Earnings © CreditDonkey

Those who point to wildly successful entrepreneurs who managed to make millions, or even billions, without a college degree usually leave out an important point: Those wealthy non-graduates are few and far between. “That is the case for the select few,” notes Joseph Nicolini, director of admissions and student finance for Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine.

One way to look at the question of “Is college worth it?” is to view it through the same lens you would as any other big investment. What do you stand to gain, and what do you stand the lose? The answer to the first part is potentially a lot and perhaps very little on the last point. “Although it can be argued otherwise, a college education stands alone as the one investment that cannot be lost, spent, or taken away from the investor,” Nicolini says.

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