Is the cost of college too high? Are the majority of degrees truly worth any more than the paper they’re printed on? Is a college education necessary for success — and by what standards do we measure success?
The debate over the cost, necessity, and benefits of college continues to rage on, and many individuals come down firmly on one side or another. For some, college is an elitist sham and a waste of time and money. For others it provides invaluable and necessary life experience but the costs are unfairly high.
The problem, however, is that the question “is your college degree really worth the cost?” is extremely reductive. How do you determine whether or not your college degree deserves an empty bank account, and by what standard of measurement are you using for “worth” and “cost”?
Debt vs. Salary
To take the financial approach to the question, you might ask “will my salary upon graduation adequately cover or compensate for my student debt?” Or even, “will my salary upon graduation meet or exceed my expectations?”
In regards to the first question, the answer is frequently no. Although there are — despite fluctuations in the economy — several degrees and career paths with high starting salaries, many degrees do not come with large salaries. In fact, there are numerous certificates that cannot even guarantee work in that field upon graduation.
It’s the classic “all humanities majors end up crushed under their enormous debt while working minimum wage at Starbucks” argument. While figures do tend to support this line of reasoning, that doesn’t mean that said argument covers every nuance or viewpoint of what is truly a larger debate.
Job Market vs. Personal Interests
As the humanities-majors-at-Starbucks argument accurately points out, there are a large number of college students pursuing a degree for which there is a limited — or nonexistent — job market.
However, according to Dirty Jobs host, Mike Rowe, there are roughly three million available jobs in our country that continue to go unfilled. The problem is, however, that these jobs are largely blue collar.
It seems in recent years the definition of the American dream has been reduced to: “go to college and then achieve wild financial success in a white collar field.” Consciously or no, we look down on the important trades — plumbing, construction, welding, carpentry — that are undeniably necessary for our first world comforts. These legitimate career paths are unfairly derided as fallbacks for those who fail to achieve that narrow new definition of the American dream.
Does a lack of job market mean that college is not worth the cost to those who attend to pursue personal interests in the humanities or arts? If the debate is measured solely in terms of salary vs. debt, then yes. If finances are not the measuring stick, the answer becomes less clear. In this facet of the higher education debate, the question becomes: “should I seek education related to my interests, or should I pursue work that matches my strengths, and allow those interests to remain hobbies?”
Experience vs. Expense
Again the difficulty comes from the definition of worth. Is the worth of college measured solely by financial rewards? Or is it measured in less-tangible gains?
If a student approaches college with a focus on experience, they may weigh the cost differently. That mindset will not erase the realities of debt, but it will measure the cost against gains like life experience, shaping of worldviews, travel, relationships, knowledge, independence, networking, and extracurricular opportunities.
As indicated in the previous section, a large portion of the U.S. perpetuates a false belief that those who do not attend college are somehow lesser. If your sole purpose in attending college is to obtain a degree that will guarantee you a good salary and a good job — a promise few degrees can fulfil — then it may not be worth the expense.
The question of whether a “college degree is really worth the cost” can only be answered by the individual, and even then only after said individual has identified their personal definitions of “cost” and “worth.”
However, if you have measured the financial burden of a traditional degree against your personal definition and found the cost unworthy, never fear, there are other paths and options available.
For those that still wish to obtain a degree there are plenty of affordable alternative options. There are online schools and night classes that provide more flexibility for students that need to work full time. There are community colleges with transferable credits. There are associate’s degrees. There are also numerous trades that require either a trade school degree or no degree at all. The apprenticeship process is still alive and well, it just doesn’t make front page news quite like student loans.