Is a College Degree Worth It?


Trying to decide if college is right for you? We present arguments for - and against - higher education.

By Terence Loose

When former presidential candidate Rick Santorum called President Barack Obama "a snob" for his vow to make higher education available to all in February, it sparked a nationwide debate on whether going to college was a good choice for everyone.

And while Santorum later went on to retract that statement, the question remains: Does college increase your shot at wealth and job security?

It's a good time to ask this question since the same month Santorum sounded off at the press, the U.S. Census Bureau released its "Educational Attainment in the United States: 2011" report. It found that as of March 2011, "for the first time ever, more than 30 percent of U.S. adults 25 and older had at least a bachelor's degree." For context, as recently as 1998, that number was under 25 percent.

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If you're wondering whether you should join the educated ranks, you're not alone. The debate is on, with plenty of education and work force experts advocating a close consideration of all options.

"One size does not fit all," says Marty Nemko, a career expert and author of "How to Do Life: What They Didn't Teach You in School."

"So whether it be the president or anybody else saying we need to send more people to college, that may be fine in the abstract, but for individuals making a decision about what's right for them, it needs to be a very individualized choice," Nemko says.

Still on the fence about earning a college degree? Check out these arguments for - and against - higher education.

Argument against Higher Education - Tuition is Not Cheap

Unless you're a star quarterback or Einstein-like genius who gets a full scholarship, college is going to cost you not only time, but money. How much exactly?

Though it varies greatly, the College Board, an organization of colleges and universities that administers tests like the SAT, was able to cite some annual averages in their "Trends in College Pricing 2011" report:

  • In-state tuition and fees for full-time students at a public four-year college: $8,244.
  • In-state tuition and fees for full-time students at a public two-year college: $2,963.
  • Note: These costs don't include books, parking, and other related costs.

And some experts, like Nemko, say that for many young people, paying this amount of tuition is just not a good investment.

"There are many average people for whom the fortune of money it would take to go to college would be better spent in an apprenticeship, getting a certificate [in a trade] from a community college, going into the military, starting their own business, or working at the elbow of an entrepreneur," says Nemko.

Argument for Higher Education - A College Degree Could Lead to Higher Earning Potential

However, even Nemko agrees you're likely to make a lot more money with a degree, or some higher education, than without it.

And statistics seem to back up the sentiment. In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor's 2011 fourth quarter report, "Usual Weekly Earnings of Wage and Salary Workers," found that workers with only a high school degree had a median weekly income of $641. Those with a bachelor's degree earned a median weekly income of $1,158. That's nearly $27,000 more per year for bachelor's degree holders.

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Further, a 2010 Georgetown University report entitled "Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018," found that "workers with a high school diploma or less are largely limited to three occupational clusters that are either declining or pay low wages." These three include food and personal services, sales and office support, and "blue collar" jobs.

Argument against Higher Education - You Don't Necessarily Need College to Succeed

Just look at Steve Jobs...Bill Gates...or even Woody Allen for that matter. None of them earned a college degree, and most would argue they did pretty well for themselves.

And even if you aren't one of these absurdly gifted humans, there is hope without a college degree.

"The idea that you have to go to college to be successful has become woven into the way we think in America," says Susan M. Heathfield, a human resources consultant and manager. "But I don't think that a college degree is for everybody."

Instead, Heathfield suggests students pursue other options, like apprenticeships in trades such as plumbing, welding, or carpentry.

"We are beginning to come up with a desperate shortage of people in the skilled trades. Talk to these guys - and it's mostly men who work in these fields - and they can't find any kid to work with them, to be their apprentices," she says.

Argument for Higher Education - A College Degree Could Lead to More Job Stability

With the word "unemployment" in the news on a daily basis, it's a good move to try to do anything you can to make yourself more employable. And according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor, getting a college degree is one move that could help.

Consider a Department of Labor study called "Education Pays." It found that for 2011, the average unemployment rate for workers 25 years old and up with only a high school degree was 9.4 percent. For those with an associate's degree, it was 6.8 percent, and for bachelor's degree holders it was 4.9 percent.

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Why the difference? While there's no definitive answer, former UC Santa Barbara professor of psychology, Suzanne Anthony, suggests that attaining a college degree often demands working with a team, showing leadership, and making deadlines - all things employers like.

"Those skills and experiences will help when it comes to challenging situations on the job," Anthony says. "That can keep you in a job or even allow growth and advancement with a company."

Argument against Higher Education - Many College Grads Are Unemployed

Yes, they are. In fact, a 2012 study from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce titled "Hard Times: Not All College Majors are Created Equal," stated "Unemployment figures show the jobless rate for recent college graduates with bachelor's degrees has been running at an unacceptable 8.9 percent."

Not great news, considering the national unemployment rate in March 2012 was 8.2 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Nemko says that there are two problems happening simultaneously. One, there is an enormous oversupply of college grads. Two, at the same time, employers see them as overvalued. "[Employers] are downsizing, off shoring, automating. So it's no longer the slam dunk that it used to be that you should go to college," says Nemko.

Argument for Higher Education - A College Degree Makes You More In Demand

Here's the thing: Georgetown's "Hard Times" study also found that the unemployment rate among job seekers with no better than a high school diploma was "a catastrophic 22.9 percent." And if you didn't graduate high school? "An almost unthinkable 31.5 percent."

"If you don't have a college degree, you're out of the loop for a big chunk of jobs that have the requirement of an associate's or bachelor's degree, or even a certificate from a community college," says Anthony.

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And that will only get truer, according to Georgetown's "Help Wanted" report. It stated that by 2018, "about two-thirds of all employment will require some college education or better."

"Certainly, having a college degree when looking for a job gives you the edge over candidates without one," Anthony says. "I think employers would take someone with a college degree over someone without one, all other things being equal."

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