Is a College Education Worth the Cost?

Going to college was never just a possibility for me, it was an expectation. Funny enough, the expectation never included how my college education would be paid for. Of course, there was the hope that academic or athletic excellence would result in a scholarship, neither of these were guaranteed. And as I got older, it became more and more apparent that my parents could not afford to send me to college.

And just like the expectation that I attend college, when the time came to apply for financial aide, there also seemed to be the expectation that my parents would help fund this education. In fact, this seems to be the case for most working class students who have been sold the idea that higher education is an essential step on the road to adult success.

I was fortunate to receive a full non-academic, non-athletic scholarship that paid for the Bachelor’s degree earned from a top ranked California State University. However, I am quite aware of the rarity of my situation and the reality that most people leave college with huge amounts of debt. The problem is that the price of college tuition has skyrocketed since the 2008 recession, while wages have remained stagnant, raising questions about the cost of college versus what seems to be a diminishing income return.

According to Freakonomics author/co-host and economist at the University of Chicago, Steven Levitt, the economy absolutely rewards education. In a 2012 podcast, Levitt notes:

“The best estimates that economists have are that each extra year of education that you get is worth about maybe an eight percent increment to your earnings each year for the rest of your life. So it turns out for most people buying a lot of education, or at least for the average person let me say, buying a lot of education is a really good deal.”

Indeed, studies do indicate that college graduates earn more money than non-college graduates. This is especially true for people who earn practical degrees such as engineering or nursing. So ultimately the question isn’t whether or not college is worth the cost, but rather if people can actually afford the financial burden.

The reality is that most 9-to-5 salaried jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree, a fact that has some saying the college degree is becoming equivalent to a high school diploma. There’s one big difference between the two: a high school diploma can be obtained for free through the public education system; a college degree is something you must pay for yourself. And while more employers require a minimum of a four-year degree for even entry level positions, the price of a bachelor’s degree has gone up, but wages have not increased in kind.

According to the Institute for College Access & Success, in 2004 the average student graduated from a four-year college with just over $18,000 in student loan debt. In 2008, that number had increased to nearly $23,000 and in 2012, student loan debt for the average college graduate had increased to nearly $29,000. And that was just for public school graduates. At for-profit colleges, 88 percent of students took out loans and graduated with an average of $39,950 in student loan debt. What’s more is that students who qualified for a Pell Grant because their family income was less than $40,000 a year, were “much more likely to borrow and borrow more.”

5 Stunning Stats About College Debt

Despite what some would argue is an alarming increase in college tuitions, the fact remains that college graduates make more money than non-college graduates. According to the Pew Research Center, the median income for a high school graduate with full-time work was $28,000 in 2012. The median income for full-time workers with a two-year degree increased modestly to $30,000. However, for full-time workers with a four-year degree, the median income was $45,500. College graduates were also less likely to be unemployed, less likely to be impoverished, and more likely to experience job satisfaction overall.

So sure, the cost of a college education has risen dramatically over the last decade, along with student loan debt. The explosion of student loan debt is an entirely different issue from whether or not earning a four-year degree is worth the cost. However, with the increased importance of a college education means that the cost of not going to college has a greater impact on today’s young adults than it did on previous generations.

Indeed, a college education can mean the difference between socio-economic mobility and a lifetime of minimum wage work. And since the children of college-educated parents are more likely to attend and graduate from college, earning a college degree could, in some cases, mean breaking generational cycles of poverty.

Image Credits: Shutterstock
Kimberlee Morrison

Kimberlee Morrison

Editor in Chief
Kimberlee Morrison is a writer and editor with more than a decade of experience writing about business, technology and social media. She a founding partner of the digital media upstart CultureMass Media, Inc., and Editor in Chief of

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  • Richard Brooks

    This is a new and different prospective than what most people write about! Thank you!

    For my 2 cents I’ll pose some suggestions that really ask even more questions.

    1) I think we need to de-stigmatize the community college and online school options, and encourage those institutions to strive for higher educational excellence not just graduation however possible.

    2) I think we need to empower guidance counselors in high schools to make recommendations for “trade” schools for those students for whom it makes more sense.

    3) if college is slowly becoming the 13th grade and a requirement for civilized society, then we need to look at ways to a) make it more accessible and b) figure out the wage growth problem. If college tuition went up with wage growth, we may not even be having this conversation.

    • Kimberlee Morrison

      I’ve been saying we need to at least show kids the options of community college and trade schools since these are the best opportunity for developing practical skills and getting some college experience without the big price tag. When I worked as a college aide, there were plenty of “at-risk” students for whom the idea of paying for college was overwhelming. I always let them know it was a good idea to start at a community college so they could get the GE requirements done and transfer to a university and pay significantly less for their degree.

      And you’re spot on with point #3. It would be one thing if the requirement was part of the free or low cost education. But the price tag for a degree that has become a requirement for a full-time salaried position is part of what continues to perpetuate income inequality. Ultimately though, while the issues of wage stagnation and tuition inflation are just pieces of an overall issue. If the question is whether or not a college degree is worth the cost, the data points to a resounding yes.

  • YM

    I agree in that we need to make community college a more attractive option since it is more affordable. It makes it easy to get required prerequisites out of the way. Additionally, community college allows students to take more ‘exploratory classes’ that may assist them in assessing their interests more effectively, without feeling boxed in by having to put their education on the ‘fast track’ because of the price tag.