Is College Even Worth it?

I know, I know…the news from the last two years of college admissions is dreary, to say the least. Application numbers are up, enrollment is down (in some cases, way down), and it feels like there isn’t a lot of security, no matter the decision you make about where you’ll go.

Although the pandemic’s effects will continue to ripple throughout admissions over the next several years, know that you aren’t alone if you’ve contemplated whether or not college is the right choice. Almost everyone thinks about jumping off the academic train at some point, and, in light of the pandemic, for many that time is now.

A Huffpost article from 2019 suggests that…

if you examine whether college is worth it from a purely statistical standpoint, the answer is yes.

…on average, workers with a bachelor’s degree earn $1,000,000 more over their lifetimes than those with only a high school diploma. However, majors make a difference. Almost all of the highest-paying college majors are in engineering, with petroleum engineering ranking No. 1 at a median annual salary of $136,000. Education, arts and social work comprised many of the lowest-paying majors, with early childhood education coming in last, at a median annual salary of $39,000.

But lifetime earnings are just one piece of a pretty complicated puzzle. You should also take a step back and define what “worth it” means to you and your child.

For instance, the average Class of 2017 graduate who took out student loans graduated $39,400 in debt. Your child should consider whether getting into debt in pursuit of a higher-paying job is worth putting off major life goals such as getting married or buying a home. According to a 2015 survey, 45 percent of Americans with student loan debt delayed these types of milestones because of the added financial burden.

High school grads are sometimes able to make up for the lack of a college degree with work experience, depending on the field. The U.S. government considers three years of general experience in a federal position equivalent to a bachelor’s degree, for example. And people with only a high school diploma generally have the benefit of a four-year head start in the workforce.

Still, it appears that even if a college grad ends up in a field other than the one they studied, they’re at least more likely to nab a job, period. Georgetown University found in 2016 that of the 11.6 million jobs created after the recession, 11.5 million went to workers with at least some college education. Overall, college grads have the lowest unemployment rates.

Wage stagnation is also affecting the working class particularly hard. Earnings have remained flat over the last two years while inflation has grown to 2.9 percent. Meanwhile, the wage gap between those with and without four-year college degrees has steadily increased since the 1970s, when college graduates were earning 134 percent of high school graduates’ wages. Now they’re earning 168 percent of high school graduates’ wages.
So the numbers suggest college is worth it. However, they are based on averages. Not everyone is cut out for a career in a high-paying field such as engineering or prepared to shoulder five figures in debt. Your child could be one of the outliers who ultimately won’t benefit from a traditional college degree, and it’s crucial to find that out as soon as possible.

At IN College Planning, the career development work we do throughout junior year is crucial in determining what that college pathway looks like for every teen. We start by helping each teen confidently assess what they like to do, and what they’re good at. This isn’t something that happens with personality quizzes, books of majors, or arbitrary seminars. It comes from real, personal, one-on-one work with your teen. IN’s College Planning Advisors are there to guide them through every step of the process—from college and career research to applications to navigating financial aid. Discussions about the number of years needed in school help us narrow the number of seemingly limitless choices in a field. Many times, there are occupations in the field at every level–for those with a high school diploma to those with a doctoral degree. Our role at IN College Planning is never to limit, but to illuminate. Got a kid who loves engineering but isn’t ready for the rigor of bachelor’s degree? A role as a mechanical engineering technician might be perfect (and it only requires an associate’s degree). A teen who loves psychology, but not the idea of graduate school may love working in marketing, MBA not required.

The important part of career development is to listen, and plan accordingly. Hundreds of our teens are ready for college, and graduate school and anything else required. These kids love school, and are financially prepared for an extended education. Hundreds more are ready to get to it already–these teens are eager to jump into the world of work quickly, so it’s important we help them find roles designed to do just that.

If, like me, you ultimately want your kids to have happy successful lives, you’ll note the importance of early career development. Teens who know what they want to do apply to schools that support this goal. The colleges they apply to offer a great education and terrific job placement opportunities within the field. These goal-directed high schoolers finish college on time, and with less debt because they land at the right school in the right major at the very beginning. This school may be an amazing community college with a great technical program, or an august 4-yr program that is at the top of their chosen field. No matter where your teen lands, by doing career development first, these students are ready for what comes next, from Real Estate Agent to Radiologist.

Although junior year is almost at its end, there’s still time for your teen to research the right career path for them, before the Common Application opens on August 1st. Let us help your family find the right fit for your teen.

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