Is a college degree worth it?

As options for a good job grow, you may land a high-paying job without needing to take on tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt

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A college degree often leads to a high-paying job, but it’s not your only option for paying off your student loans. (Shutterstock)

Long gone are the days when you could pay your way through college with a summer job. 

The average cost for a public university undergraduate student living on campus reached $25,700 in the 2020 academic year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). For private university students, the cost reached $54,500 for the year. Tuition alone has risen more than 10% over the past decade at public universities, and nearly 20% at private ones, after adjusting for inflation. 

With that amount of money on the line, it’s a valid question to ask whether a college degree is worth it. Before taking out student loans, you should carefully consider your career goals and evaluate other options you have to get the skills and experience you seek.

If you’ve exhausted your scholarship, grant, and federal loan options, you might consider taking out private student loans to help fund your education. Credible lets you compare private student loan rates from multiple lenders, all in one place.

When is a college degree worth it?

Pursuing your education beyond high school is generally a worthy investment. But the type of college or training program you should choose is a much more complicated question and depends heavily on your personal goals.

The case for higher education in general is pretty straightforward. On average, college graduates earn significantly more money per year. Young adults (age 25 to 34) working full-time who completed a bachelor’s degree earned an average of $59,600 in 2020, according to the NCES. That’s 63% higher than people in the same age group who only finished high school, who earned $36,600 on average. 

Nearly two-thirds of job openings will require some form of college degree by 2020, according to a report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

But the world is changing, and more pathways to a good job are opening up outside of the traditional four-year college degree. Today, whether you should pursue a two-year degree, four-year degree, or an advanced degree depends on your career goals. You might also consider online courses, an apprenticeship program, coding boot camps, a certificate program, or a host of other options. 

Employment for people with associate degrees is expected to grow 10.5% over the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) — faster than the growth expected for people with bachelor’s degrees or a high school diploma. And many large employers are moving away from requiring a four-year degree for their entry-level jobs. Instead, they’re emphasizing the specific skills potential candidates would need to demonstrate to be hired.

Whether you choose a four-year university or a two-year program, you’ll be in good company: Of the 2 million higher education graduates each year, about half were in a bachelor’s degree program and the other half pursued a two-year degree or certificate, according to the Georgetown University report.

If federal aid and loans don’t cover all your college costs, visit Credible to compare private student loan rates from various lenders in minutes.

Pros of attending college

Attending college has several benefits to consider, including:

  • You’re more likely to get a good job. While not a certainty, a college education is generally a ticket to well-paying, fulfilling employment. A good job, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, is one that pays at least $35,000 and has a median salary of at least $57,000 by age 35, while adjusting for regional cost-of-living differences. About 80% of bachelor’s degree holders have this type of job by the time they’re 35, along with 56% of people with some college or an associate degree. Without higher education, your chances fall dramatically — to 42% of people with a high school diploma and 26% for people who didn’t graduate high school.
  • You’re less likely to be unemployed. Even in today’s labor market, you’re much more likely to be gainfully employed if you’ve attended college. In June 2022, the unemployment rate for people with a bachelor’s degree stood at 2.1%. For high school graduates, the rate was 3.6% and people who didn’t finish high school had an unemployment rate of 5.8%, according to the BLS. When the economy isn’t so great, the differences are even more stark. During the Great Recession, for example, the unemployment rate for people with a four-year degree generally remained below 5%, while the rate for people who didn’t attend college rose to 10% or higher.
  • You’ll have access to networking and resources. A college campus is a unique environment rich with new experiences and resources to help you along your way. Most colleges and universities employ scores of counselors, advisors, and other specialists who can help you explore different career options and land internships and connections that can help you make your career goals a reality. They can also help you apply for student loans you may need to complete your education.

Cons of attending college

Getting a college degree could come with some potential downsides as well, including:

  • You could start your career with mounds of debt. With the high cost of college, you’re likely to graduate with hefty student loan debt that you’ll need to start repaying. The average bachelor’s degree graduate leaves school with a total of $32,300 in debt, according to the NCES. The monthly payments you’ll need to make can make it more difficult to achieve your other financial goals, like buying a house or car, or starting your own business.
  • Cheaper options are available. A four-year university program isn’t the only way to achieve a rewarding career. Two-year degrees or certificate programs are much less costly and can often get you ready for a high-paying, in-demand job in a short period of time. Alternatives like coding bootcamps and online coursework are springing up around the country as well. Companies like Google and Microsoft offer free or low-cost certifications online, and others provide on-the-job training for good job candidates.
  • You may not graduate. Starting college isn’t a guarantee that you’ll graduate with a degree. More than one-third of bachelor’s degree seekers had failed to graduate within six years of starting their university program in 2020, according to the NCES. This can have a devastating financial impact, saddling you with tens of thousands of dollars in debt from the student loans you took out with little to show for it. If you have bad credit after this experience, you may have difficulty funding your education moving forward.

When deciding if college is the right decision, you must balance the potential benefits of a college education against the costs. It’s important to keep in mind to compare your likely total debt upon graduation with your salary expectations as you don’t want to take out more debt than you’ll be able to repay based on your income. 

With Credible, you can compare private student loan rates without affecting your credit.