Is a Four-Year Degree Worth It?

Is going to a four-year college worth the cost? Maybe, maybe not. Determine your goals and decide with this handy guide, courtesy of Expert Rachel Fishman.

With tuition rising and wages stagnating, you might be wondering if attending college is worth the cost. Most likely, it is. According to a recent Pew study, full-time-employed millennials who hold bachelor’s or more advanced degrees earn a median wage of $45,500, while their high school–educated peers earn a median wage of $28,000. In addition, the unemployment rate for millennials with bachelor’s degrees is four percent, compared to 12 percent for those with high school diplomas alone.

These statistics show that there is an economic benefit to going to — and graduating from — college. However, it's getting more expensive to attend college, which has its own opportunity cost: Students often forego wages while in school. The average price of tuition and fees at a public, four-year university is $9,139 — and that's not including the average room and board cost of $9,804. That's nearly $19,000 per year to attend a public institution not including other important academic-related purchases such as textbooks, a computer, Internet access, and transportation to and from campus. The sticker price of attending a four-year private school is almost triple that.

It's understandable that students today feel like they're getting squeezed: If you don't go to college, you are more likely to face dim job prospects and low wages. But if you do go to college, you’re more likely to end up in debt, and you face the prospect of never breaking even on your college degree. Your future may feel like a gamble. It doesn't have to be a gamble, though. Not everyone wants to go to college, but if you do want to obtain a postsecondary credential, there are steps you can take to ensure that attending college is a less financially risky prospect. The first is having a better understanding about what type of postsecondary credential to pursue — not everyone needs a bachelor's degree to land a dream job. Some jobs, such as dental hygienist and Web developer positions, require either a certificate or associate's degree, and some require a master's or other advanced degree. You should consider which career(s) you want to pursue, and research the degrees required to do that work, as well as the average salaries in your chosen field. The less time it takes to obtain the necessary degree(s), the more you might save upon entering the job market, depending on what your goals are. There are, of course exceptions: business school typically costs more than a doctorate program, but only takes two years as compared to a doctorate program which can take five to ten years. It's important to have an understanding of how much time it will take to complete any necessary credential, both in terms of tuition fees and opportunity costs.

In addition to researching prospective career and credential options, you should ascertain how much certain colleges would actually cost. All colleges that distribute federal financial aid are required to have an online net-price calculator, which provides personalized estimates of what you would pay at a specific school. Another option you have is to use College Abacus, which aggregates the net-price calculator data so you can input your information once and then compare the net prices of multiple colleges. These data can help you make informed decisions about which school(s) will be affordable and enable you to accomplish your goals.

You should always be thinking seriously about the outcome you want from college, and not attend blindly, hoping that you will land a job that pays off your loans. If you have a better understanding of your career prospects and the varying costs of different colleges, you will be better prepared to understand the value of college — and, if appropriate — to determine which college is right for you.

Editor's Note

Check out these articles for further advice about deciding whether or not to pursue a four-year degree:

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