After four years of napping through pre-requisites and electives, of listening to the robotic drone of disengaged professors, and spending all-nighters memorizing key terms that would be forgotten immediately following the exam, many college students become exceedingly cynical. This was something I noticed in my peers (and in myself) as I neared college graduation.
As upperclassmen, we began to think critically about the worth of our degrees and the costs we were indebting to get them. Was all of our tuition and hard work really preparing us for the next step in our lives (and did we even know what that next step was)?
Were we learning practical skills, or simply earning a fancy piece of paper that signified our so-called “qualification” for professional work? Was the current set-up of higher education truly benefiting us, or just taking us through the motions and taking our money in the process?
The Price of a Degree
At the time, it was impossible to tell… and for most of us, these questions may follow for years after we graduate. There isn’t a single definitive answer that tells us whether a college degree will be worth the time and money (if only it were that simple!), but the question is certainly worth asking.
To most of us, the effectiveness of a college education is determined based upon the success we have in finding a good job in our field, and if we’re able to pay off our loan debt in time to make investments that are important to us (whether those investments include an extended vacation, a down payment on a home, or an early retirement).
It probably comes as no surprise that this year’s graduating class is the most indebted in history, with the average graduate owing $35,000 in student loans. Despite the hefty cost of a degree, overall the data tells us that college is well worth the investment.
We’ve all been lectured on the statistics that degree-holders make more in a lifetime than their less educated peers. What’s more, the experiences, exposure, and relationships formed during college can’t be quantified with a dollar sign. To many, the “college experience” is invaluable, even if the degree itself doesn’t follow that same logic.
The Value of a Degree
But what if your degree isn’t as valuable as you’d hoped? What about the high percentage of college graduates currently working in jobs that don’t even require a degree? And what about those of us (myself included) who have discovered that our chosen fields rely almost entirely on a strong portfolio and not on a Bachelor’s Degree?
Of course, most of us already know that not all degrees are created equal. Joann Weiner’s Washington Post article, “Why Sally can’t get a good job with her degree” tells us: “Students with traditional liberal arts degrees frequently find themselves underemployed, while students with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have little trouble finding good jobs in their profession.”
That doesn’t stop us from indebting ourselves on behalf of a creative writing education (guilty!), and the low paychecks don’t necessarily mean we regret our decisions to do so. But what if we skipped college and used those four years freelancing in our field? What if we built up a diverse portfolio instead of sitting through CHEM 101? What if we learned a skilled trade and jumped straight into the workforce? It’s these “what ifs” that seem to plague our generation.
The higher education continues past the undergraduate level as well. As people get busier and have more commitments, it becomes more difficult to pursue eduction. It would then be up to you to decide if pursing an in-person graduate degree is worth it to you versus say pursing a RN to BSN Online. These are challenging decisions to make, and in the end, the value will be different for each individual.
What’s It Really Worth?
The worth of a college degree is dependent upon several factors—job outlook, financial goals, career preparedness—and those factors may look different to everyone. In the end, there’s no single answer to whether a college degree is truly “worth it” or not.
Whether you’re a degree-bearing barista, a cashier with a PhD, or a high school graduate unsure of what to do next, just remember that there’s no limit to what you can accomplish. The higher education system isn’t perfect–and neither are we–but ultimately it’s not up to the degree to get us what we want. It’s up to us.