According to Bloomberg, the cost of a college degree is up 1120% since 1978. This is higher even than the cost of healthcare, which has risen 600%, and food, which has risen 200% over the same period. Combine this reality with the burden of student loans, instability in the job market, and the fact that researchers argue that students aren’t really learning anything in college anyway, and a lot of potential students are asking one question:
Is college worth the money?
This blog post will talk about how to make your college education worthwhile by giving you the tools you need to make the right decisions about what to study.
Take Heart, It’s Not All Bad News
In their book Academically Adrift, authors and researchers Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa uncover some discouraging news. They write, “With a large sample of more than 2300 students, we observe no statistically significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills for at least 45% of the students in our study.”
This tidbit of information has made a pretty big sensation in the media. After all, why would anyone want to spend a fortune on an education that isn’t actually working for 45% of the students who enroll?
What about the 55% of students who do make statistically significant gains? Is college worth a shot if you can be one of the successful students?
Despite what these researchers are saying, statistics show that people with college degrees are better off than those without.
In a study by Pew Research Center, researchers find, “On virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment—from personal earnings to job satisfaction to the share employed full time—young college graduates are outperforming their peers with less education.”
What’s more, a high school diploma doesn’t give you nearly the number of opportunities it gave past generations. Researchers write, “The economic analysis finds that Millennial college graduates ages 25 to 32 who are working full time earn more annually—about $17,500 more—than employed young adults holding only a high school diploma. The pay gap was significantly smaller in previous generations. College-educated Millennials also are more likely to be employed full time than their less-educated counterparts (89% vs. 82%) and significantly less likely to be unemployed (3.8% vs. 12.2%).”
And even though the cost of education has risen obscenely over the last several decades, Pew finds that “about nine-in-ten [students] with at least a bachelor’s degree say college has already paid off (72%) or will pay off in the future (17%).”
So Is College Worth the Money?
All this said, it’s kind of a catch-22. If you don’t go to college, then you risk being unemployed or underemployed and underpaid. If you do go to college, then you risk being mired in student loans that can be difficult to pay off, and you may not make as many educational gains as you would hope after such a big investment.
The answer to this dilemma is to find a degree that is actually worth something to you. What makes a degree worth something to you? It’s a combination of three factors:
- Smart financial investment. Choose a program that is a smart financial investment—one that will give you enough earning potential to repay your student loans. This will help mitigate the high cost of education.
- Career opportunities. Choose a program that will allow you to find a career in a growing industry. This will help mitigate insecurity in the job market.
- Interest and aptitude. Finally, choose a program that you have interest in and aptitude for. This will make it much more likely that you will be in the 55% of students who learn something in school.
When you put all three of these considerations together, you will be able to achieve educational success.
Which College Degrees Are Worth It?
Before you settle on your major, it’s a good idea to do some research to determine which industries are going to set you up for success in the future.
According to PayScale.com, the top 7 of 10 degrees that lead to the highest paying jobs are in engineering. The other three are in physics, math, and computer science.
This might come as a serious disappointment for any student who finds a thrill in the arts, humanities, or English disciplines. I remember when, to my parents’ horror, I announced I would be majoring in English Creative Writing of all things. They wondered what I would do with such a “useless” degree. (You should note that I graduated with my English degree the same year that Peter Merholz coined the word “blog”–yeah I’m that old…)
People who shun engineering and mathematics need not despair. It turns out that there is hope for English majors who, according to PayScale.com, have a mid-career earning potential of $71,400. A major in advertising can bring in $79,400 annually, with enough effort. And a major in fashion design can eventually lead to a lucrative career attached to a $77,100 annual salary.
None of these salaries are anything to laugh at. Yeah, you’re not looking at the income potential of the next Steve Jobs (who famously didn’t graduate from college), but you are looking at enough earning potential to repay your student loans and enjoy a comfortable life doing something you like.
So whether you make six figures as a petroleum engineer or a more modest income in advertising, picking a degree in a field that interests you will set you up for the highest success in the future.
If you’re not sure what industry interests you but are positive that you want to pick a major that will lead to a career with long-term potential, let’s talk about how to determine the fastest growing industries and select an education to fit that.
The Top 14 Fastest Growing, Highest Paying Jobs
If you’re concerned about competing for jobs in an unstable job market, you might want to focus your sights on achieving an education in one of the fastest growing industries.
I’ve created a table based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which shows the top 14 highest paying and fastest growing careers over the next decade (2012-2022). (Check out the full list of fastest growing careers.)
What strikes me about this list is that most of the careers are in the medical field. In fact, 12 of 14 of the jobs listed here are related to healthcare.
You’ll notice the columns labeled “Education Requirement” and “Investment.” The higher the level of education you need to qualify for the career, the higher the financial and time investment will be.
Among the careers on this list, it looks like earning an associate’s degree to become a dental hygienist will bring you the highest salary ($70k annually) with the lowest investment ($30k total for associate’s degree).
I highly suggest that, as you try to determine your career path, you explore the Occupational Outlook Handbook as compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. You can search for jobs, find out their growth potential, and learn about the experience and education requirements for any given industry.
Let’s say, for example, you want to find more information on what it takes to become an air traffic controller. Just type in “air traffic controller” in the search box, and you’ll find this handy little page:
It gives you information on how much you can earn (six figures!), the education requirements (associate’s degree), how many jobs there are in the industry (25,000 jobs in 2012), and other interesting details.
Once you have determined your desired course of study, you can find the best school for you by searching this database of best schools by major.
Then when you’ve settled on what you want to study and where, you can find out exactly how much your college experience is going to cost.
Some Final Thoughts on Whether College is Worth It
Is college worth the money?
The answer is, yes.
Let’s face it. A high school education isn’t enough to succeed in most endeavors anymore. Even though a college education can be an expensive proposition, if you make smart choices about what to study, you can make it worth the investment.