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College: Worth it?

Updated on March 5, 2014

College has, especially after the great recession of 2007-2008, been wedded to a certain negative connotation. College brings to mind thoughts of student loans, debt, and unemployment, rather than its intended goal of education, job security, and success. College enrollment rates have hit a peak recently, a new wave of young people with high hopes that a college degree will help them make a living in a tough economy. However, by the very nature of a tough economy, their degrees did not, could not, reward them with the jobs they felt were guaranteed. They left college rewarded instead with crippling debt and no job. This spurs conversation: Would they have been better off just finding a job straight out of high school, rather than springing for a higher education? Is college worth it?

With 53% of recent college graduates being jobless or underemployed, it's easy to say no. The unemployment rate of recent college graduates is 6.8%, which is a disheartening statistic to say the least; but, to put it into perspective, compare that to the unemployment rate of recent high school graduates: 24%. As Kayla Webley points out, "you know what’s even harder than not having a job? Not having a job or a college degree."

Even parents who are certain their child will graduate high school do not express such optimism about their child's future occupation, with 91% of them confident in graduation, but only 38% as confident in their child being able to find a good job afterward. In terms of a job hunt, everyone can acknowledge that a college degree looks good on a resume; but, even if it looks good, people say, that doesn't make it necessary.

As it turns out, though, more jobs actually are beginning to require a higher education or a college degree, making things difficult for applicants without a scholastic pedigree. Perhaps in a perfect world, a job candidate would be judged on their merits holistically, rather than on whether or not they have a college degree, but the reality of the situation is that a college degree looks good on a resume, period. It doesn't matter if the field is unrelated to the job; employers will still see it as a sign of commitment and intelligence. Even a “useless” degree, such as Philosophy, has a wide variety of applications: Graduates go on to work in fields as diverse as law, journalism, and technology.

Judging by the rate of return, as one would with any investment, college seems to hold its own. In fact, it actually comes out on top, soundly blowing alternative investments out of the water. According to Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney with Brookings, if invested into college, $102,000 yields “a rate of return of 15.2 percent per year—more than double the average return over the last 60 years seen in the stock market (6.8 percent), and more than five times the return to investments in corporate bonds (2.9 percent), gold (2.3 percent), long-term government bonds (2.2 percent), or housing (0.4 percent).

According to Catherine Rampell with the New York Times, the wage gap between people who end their education at high school and people who graduate college has widened over the decades: “In the late 1970s, the median wage was 40 percent higher for college graduates than for people with more than a high school degree; now the wage premium is about 80 percent.” The >$150,000 income realm is largely occupied by college graduates, and the value of an education only seems to increase the further you take it: A Bachelor's Degree is worth more than an Associate's Degree, an Associate's Degree is worth more than a high school diploma, and a high school diploma is worth more than nothing. Statistics show, the greater your income, the more likely it is that you went to college.

There are plenty of success stories to be told of people who made it without a college degree, but it's important to remember that anecdotes do not in any way contest statistics or empirical evidence. There are plenty of incredible high school drop-outs: William Faulkner, Walt Disney, the Wright Brothers; even John D. Rockefeller, who is estimated to have been the richest man to ever live, never got around to getting his diploma. However, that doesn't by any stretch of the imagination mean that you should drop out of high school: As Rampell points out, "of the Americans who earn over $150,000... just 6.5 percent had no more than a high school diploma."

To argue on the fringes of statistics, and bank on the small number of non-grads that are just as successful as graduates, is comparable to arguing that you shouldn't go to college because attendance increases the odds you'll get caught up in a campus shooting. Those 6.5% of Americans, as well as the men mentioned above, are exceptional: Quite literally, they are exceptions to established patterns. If everyone deviated from the current standard, we wouldn't all be considered exceptional, the standard would simply change accordingly. Conventional wisdom and common sense alike dictate that one not assume themselves to be part of the 6.5% rather than part of the altogether more likely 93.5%: Assuming yourself to be exceptional is a bold, even dangerous move; when making a life decision like whether or not to go to college, thinking yourself on one side of the bell-curve could very well land you on the opposite.

So, the concessions come forward: College is worth attending financially, sure, but money isn't everything. College is, after all, first and foremost an educational facility, not a job factory. With that in mind, does college still offer a worthwhile experience? According a survey given to college classes of 2006-2011 about how they would change their actions if they could do it all over again, only 3% of respondents regretted their decision to go to college; the largest regret was simply in regards to choosing their major.

The reason for this appears to be that college, on top of simply offering textbooks and classes, inspires and nurtures development in general. According to The Princeton Review, “Each major offers unique intellectual challenges and develops skill sets that will be applicable to various careers." College provides an environment for both scholastic and practical evolution: Students are thrust into the world of academia and sudden responsibility alike, and in a manner of speaking, it is sink or swim. The life management skills they will learn, they must learn, will continue to be invaluable long after they've closed the doors of a university behind them.

The titular question of this article seems to allow for no adequate answer: Simply saying “yes” at this point hardly seems sufficient: Even “absolutely” and “definitely” fall short. The topic demands a question of a different nature: Is it worth not going to college? Is it worth going immediately from high school to the working world, climbing through the window of success rather than walking in through the front door? If money is important you, go to college. If money isn't that important to you, go to college anyways: Like Vito Corleone, college makes an offer you can't refuse.

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