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Is College Worth It? What to Consider

College can be an expensive and time consuming investment and because of that, some students question whether earning a degree is worth it. While it’s true that there are benefits to obtaining a college degree, there are also alternative routes to success. Therefore, it is important to consider whether college is worth it for you and your desired ambitions. Keep reading to learn more!

How much does college really cost? 

Attending a four-year college comes with a hefty price tag for many students. Below, we share the average cost of attending college (COA) before and after financial aid.

Average price of college before financial aid

According to the Education Data Initiative, the average COA for  students living on campus at public four-year in-state colleges is $25,707 per year ($102,828 over four years). For private colleges, the average is $54,501 per year ($218,004 over four years). 

Also see: What is cost of attendance?

Average price of college after financial aid is applied

The College Board reports that for public four-year colleges, the cost to attend after financial aid for full-time in-state students is estimated to be $19,250 per year ($77,000 for four years). For private colleges, that number is $32,800 per year ($131,200 for four years). 

Why college is worth it (for some students)

Many jobs require a college education for employment

Having a college education opens doors to certain career paths. For example, being a K-12 teacher, registered nurse, or engineer all require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree to be considered for employment. In addition, having a college degree can help your application stand out from other applicants during a job hunt, even if a degree is not technically required. 

College graduates earn more lifetime earnings than non-college graduates

On average, employees with a bachelor’s degree earn significantly more over a lifetime than employees with only a high school diploma. The US Department of Social Security keeps track of the most recent data on college graduates vs. high school graduates over a lifetime:

  • Men with bachelor’s degrees earn approximately $900,000 more in median lifetime earnings than high school graduates
  • Women with bachelor’s degrees earn $630,000 more in median lifetime earnings than high school graduates
  • Men with graduate degrees earn $1.5 million more in median lifetime earnings than high school graduates 
  • Women with graduate degrees earn $1.1 million more in median lifetime earnings than high school graduates 

Ample access to resources and opportunities

College campuses offer an abundance of resources to students that are not available to non-college attendees. For example, many college campuses offer opportunities to join clubs and organizations that help students stand out in the job market. In addition, many internships are only available for current college students. College offers students access to alumni networks and dedicated staff to help with career and job exploration

Valuable skills are learned

College is not just about attending lectures and completing exams. The classes taken in college can help build up the skills people need in the workforce, such as critical thinking and teamwork. Communication and time management skills are also developed. In addition, college is an incredible opportunity to meet people from all over with different opinions and backgrounds. All of these experiences help people grow as individuals.

Why college might not be worth it (for some students)

College debt

Unfortunately, due to the high cost of attending college, many students need to take loans to help pay for college. This means that you could be left in debt long after graduating college–the average college loan borrower takes 20 years to pay off their debt. Loans could put a strain on your financial situation and cause you to put off other financial goals such as buying a home, saving for retirement, or starting a business.

Further reading: Student loans: The good, the bad, and the ugly

A degree may not be needed for your dream job

A college degree has the opportunity to open many doors for certain careers. However, there are many jobs that do not require a college degree. Therefore, it is up to you to figure out if your dream job is something that requires a college education. For example, say you are interested in alternative energy sources. Wind turbine service technicians are in high demand with a job growth percentage of 44%. The starting salary is  roughly $56,260 per year, and zero college is required. 

Related: Top college alternatives to four-year universities

High paying jobs are not guaranteed

While students are often taught that a college degree will automatically qualify you for a high paying job, it can be tough to find the right job with the right pay in the job market. Therefore, it is not guaranteed that you will be able to find a job straight out of college, yet alone a high paying job. With more people earning college degrees, the competition is steeper than ever when applying for even entry-level jobs. 

Alternatives to a four-year college

Community college

Attending a community college can be  significantly cheaper than attending a four-year college or university. At community college, you can earn an associate’s degree or complete certificate programs. In most states, community college is free for qualified students. Community college is a low-cost or free opportunity to explore taking college classes. 

Related: Which states offer free community college?


Coding bootcamps can be a quick pathway to obtaining a career in software and web development. Most bootcamps require a two to six month commitment, and then start off making nearly $70,000 on average per year in their first job. 

Related: Are coding bootcamps worth it?


If you have an innovative idea for a new business, entrepreneurship may be a better career path than attending college. As an entrepreneur, you are able to be your own boss and set your own salary. It is important to keep in mind that starting your own business is very risky and can take a while to create a profit. For a motivated and hardworking person with a true passion, it may be worth it to take the entrepreneurial route. 

Trade school or apprenticeships

Trade school provides hands-on training for different skilled careers. These programs tend to be shorter than college, ranging from eight months to two-years at most. There are many high-demand fields students can pursue, such as automotive repair, carpentry, cosmetology, HVAC, information technology, and even some health fields such as dental hygiene and phlebotomy. Students can be working out in their chosen  field earning a salary after paying minimal cost for their credentials. 

Advice From a College Access Professional

From my experience as a school counselor, I think that many students choose to go to college, because they think that there aren’t other options or that they will be considered a failure if they choose another pathway. I saw a lot of this pressure as a counselor and it’s unfortunate because there are many pathways to having a life of purpose and meaning.

For many students, college is a great option, but students would be wise to think about their goals. College is a big investment of time and money and depending on what your goals are, you may be better served learning a trade, going to community college, or choosing a college alternative like a coding bootcamp. A gap year can also be a very productive time to learn more about yourself and explore.
Will Geiger

Scholarships360 Co-Founder

So, is college worth it? 

It is important that you make the decision to attend or not attend college based on your own interests and desires. You should not attend college just because it is a norm of our society or because it is expected by someone else. Rather, make a pros and cons list on whether college is the right choice for you. If college if the right choice for you, there are a variety of ways to help you pay for it. Also, be sure to check out our scholarships tool to help you finance your education if college is right for you!

Key Takeaways

Key Takeaways

  • Earning a college degree is the only way to enter some careers
  • College degree holders earn more money over their lifetime 
  • On average, paying off college loan debt takes 20 years
  • In addition to earning a degree, attending college offers unique resources and opportunities
  • Community college is a low-cost or free alternative to four-year college loans
  • There are many non-college options, such as bootcamps, trade schools, and starting one’s own business
  • Ultimately, college is the right choice for some people and not others
Key Takeaways