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The Question Some People Ask

Is a College Education a Good Investment?

Whether you're still in high school, already enrolled in college, or stuck in a low paying job you've probably heard it a hundred times: get your college degree and you'll find financial success. In reality, it's not that simple. Like most things in life, there are pros and cons that should be weighed carefully case by case. College may not be the best option for everyone, different degrees and schools carry different price tags and not all degrees have the same return on investment (ROI). Here are some different aspects, facts, and figures about college degrees to help you make the best choice for your own college degree decision.

Degrees & Career Paths


The Averages


Here's a detailed look from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) at education levels in regard to median weekly earnings and unemployment statistics to give you a broad idea of how a degree can affect your income on the big whole. Keep in mind, these numbers cover all degree subjects and all areas of the U.S.; details on those two subjects will be covered later.

Here are the national median weekly earnings by education attained:

EducationWeekly Earnings
No high school diploma$493
High school diploma$678
Some college, no degree$738
Associates degree$798
Bachelor degree$1,137
Masters degree$1,341
Doctorate degree$1,623

Here are the unemployment percentages by education attained:

EducationUnemployment Percentages
No high school diploma5.6%
High school diploma4.1%
Some college, no degree3.7%
Associates degree2.8%
Bachelor degree2.2%
Masters degree2.1%
Doctorate degree1.6%

As you can see, the median income with a bachelor’s degree is almost double the income with only a high school diploma. Also, note the large difference between an associate degree and a bachelor’s; this is the primary reason a four-year degree is recommended over a two-year degree. The same trend continues with unemployment. If you hold a bachelor’s degree, your chance of being unemployed is almost half of that of a high school graduate.

The Opinions


There are a lot of news articles and polls about college degrees and cost; it's easy to get confused when you're making a major financial decision. While the majority (77%) of college graduates agree that their education was worth the cost, that still leaves almost a quarter of Americans who disagree. Why?

For the most part, those who feel their degree wasn't worth it fall into one of two categories: they are either in debt over $50,000, or they chose a degree that isn't very marketable. There's also a discrepancy between recent graduates and those who have been working in their field of choice for several years, most likely because many new graduates expect to be immediately hired into a high paying position, only to find they need to gain experience to qualify for higher-paying positions.

A college degree has substantial financial value, both on average and for the vast majority of graduates. This is true even after making several “adjustments” to lifetime earnings which provide a much more accurate view of the value afforded by attending college. Attending college is not without risk, however. The financial and time investments will not pay off for everyone, especially if we continue to see about half of those who enroll at the average 4-year college not holding a degree 6 years later.

The Variables


Graduating vs. Getting Your Feet Wet

College is expensive, and if you look back at the wage and unemployment charts, you'll see that, while those with some college experience don't earn much less than those with an associate degree, the unemployment is considerably higher with no degree. Since you have to pay for classes whether you graduate or not, dropping out means you have college debt and nothing to show for it.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and if you can only take a few classes a year, you'll still earn a degree if you persevere. Although a bachelor’s is considered a four-year degree, the majority of students take at least five years to complete it. The key to financial stability is to make an education plan and stick to it until you hold your diploma.

Certain fields can be entered with a certificate or trade school education, so it's important to understand that college isn't a 'one size fits all' decision. However, you should look to the future and follow through once you enroll in order to make the best financial decision.

Loans vs. Scholarships and Grants


Because the majority of those who feel their degree wasn't worth it hold over $50,000 in debt at graduation, you should look closely at costs before you enroll. Public schools cost much less than private schools, and if you need financial aid, you should understand the difference between loans, scholarships, and grants.

Student loans must be repaid whether you graduate or not. They should be your last recourse, and if you have to borrow, you should do so sparingly and not spend the money on anything but your education.

Scholarships and grants don't have to be repaid and are the best route to achieve financial freedom from student debt. You should set aside time each week to find and apply for scholarships and grants and continue to do so throughout your college years.

You can also decrease your overall student debt by attending a community college for the first two years and then transferring to a four-year school. If you choose this option, you should verify your credits are transferable to the four-year school and the degree program that is your ultimate goal.

If you're already working, check with your employer to see if the company has an education program. Often larger companies offer college tuition reimbursement for employees, and you can earn your degree at little or no personal cost.

Highly Competitive vs. Less Competitive


Your choice of field also plays a part in your degree decision, as does where you live. If you plan to enter a highly competitive field, holding a bachelor’s degree will make you more employable than someone with the same experience and no degree. In some fields, the same holds for a master's degree as opposed to a bachelor's, so before you enroll in school, you should research your chosen field and get a clear picture of what the competition is. The same career may also be more competitive in one state than another due to the region's unemployment or major industries.

The BLS details thousands of jobs and almost always has projections for employment prospects over the next decade. When you investigate your chosen profession, you should also look at the projected demographics for specific states and regions to get a clear understanding of your future job market.

Flexibility vs. Single Job Option


Not all careers are equal and not all fields require a degree. There are many careers you can enter by completing a certificate program or vocational training, and some of them pay quite well. If you're considering this route, you should still look to the future: what will your prospects be in 10 or 20 years? The majority of these fields offer fast entry into the employment market but no flexibility or advancement. For example, you can complete a certificate program and become an MRI technologist in under a year, but there is little or no advancement available. There are many occupations like this, so you should again do your homework. If you plan to take a nail technician certification program in order to enter the job market quickly, you should also consider where you'll be and how much you'll earn in a decade. If your goal is to own your own salon, you should consider continuing your education while you work to learn the ins and outs of running a business. On the other hand, if cars are your passion and your dream job is to tinker with and repair engines, a vocational school may be your best bet, and you'll earn an excellent wage throughout your career. The key is to look ahead, so that in a decade or two you're not faced with a major career change and the education required to get there.

Varies by Industry/Region


When choosing a career, you should look into the demographics rather than the average income, because where you live is as important as what you plan to do. For example, a degree in urban planning might be lucrative if you live in a metropolitan area with a lot of expansion, but you may have a hard time finding employment if you live in Utah. Likewise, a career with an average annual income of $100,000 means the national average: if you live in West Virginia you probably won't find a position offering that much, but if you live in New York City there may be plenty of jobs at that wage.

You should also look at the cost of living for the area where you plan to live and work. While that job in West Virginia may only offer half the salary of the one in New York City, the cost of living may be so much lower that you end up with more disposable income because of the difference in housing and other expenses.

Industry Standards/Requirements


You should also examine the industry standards and requirements for your chosen field before deciding on a degree path. For example, most states require a teacher to have at least a bachelor’s degree as well as state certification; a similar position at a college will most likely require a master's degree. You can work as a nurse's aide with an associate degree and become a registered nurse (RN) with a bachelor's, but if you wish to enter administration, you'll need a master's.

Some fields, such as counseling, require both a degree and experience to qualify for state licensure, And some fields, such as business, hold the master's degree as the preferred entry-level of education. Because you don't want to graduate and find that you have no job prospects, you should research your field in depth to know the entry-level, mid-career level, and late-career salaries, as well as the educational standards for each.

5 Most “Worth It” Majors


These degrees earn an annual median wage between $105,000 and $130,000.

  • Actuarial Science
    This field quantifies risk using probability, statistics, and math; used in the insurance and accounting industries
  • Zoology
    The study of animals and their behavior, either in the wild or in captivity - May study a group of species or a single species
  • Nuclear Engineering
    The application of breaking down atomic nuclei or of combining atomic nuclei (fission or fusion) based on nuclear physics
  • Health and Medical Preparatory programs
    Healthcare and related fields of study, from nursing to doctors as well as technicians, such as MRI technologists
  • Applied Mathematics
    A combination of specialized knowledge and mathematical science; used in many fields, such as computers and engineering

5 Least “Worth It” Majors


These degrees earn an annual median wage between $40,000 and $52,000.

  • Miscellaneous fine arts
    Any fine arts degree that doesn't have a specific field of study, such as theater or music
  • Composition and speech
    Learning to write and speak clearly and effectively; usually in a teaching format
  • Clinical psychology
    Diagnose and treat psychological, behavioral, or emotional disorders; requires at least a master's degree
  • Cosmetology services
    Provide personal services relating to skincare, hair care, makeup application, and nail care
  • Culinary arts
    Cooking, preparation, and presentation of food, typically in the form of meals; examples of professions are caterer and baker
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