Is College Worth It?

Is College Worth It?



All college programs are not equal. A new report shows that higher education in the fields of science, engineering, and health delivers the best return on investment (ROI) for graduates, while students who focus on the arts, religion, or biology may have difficulty recouping their costs.

Clearly some college programs provide more bang for the buck than others, but earning a degree is usually worth the time, effort, and expense.

Most College Programs Yield a Return

Third Way , a public policy group based in Washington, D.C., analyzed Department of Education data covering nearly 40,000 undergraduate programs across the United States that had graduated over 2.2 million college students.

The think tank pored over the data to determine the ROI, which it calls the “price-to-earnings premium,” for students who completed specific college programs.

If the majority of students who graduated from a college program earned less than someone who never attended college, those graduates obtained “no economic ROI, as their income is less than someone with no postsecondary experience,” Third Way senior fellow Michael Itzkowitz says in the report.

The vast majority of the bachelor’s and associate’s degree programs left students with a positive ROI within 10 years of graduating, according to the analysis.

If you are concerned about taking on student loan debt to go to college, you may want to consider a career in nursing. College programs with the highest ROI include registered nursing, nursing administration, nursing research, and clinical nursing, Third Way reported.

Graduates from electrical engineering and industrial engineering programs also fared well in terms of recouping their educational investment in five years or less.

About half of certificate programs show the majority of graduates able to recoup their educational costs within five years. The strongest in the pack tend to promote skills in areas like transportation, equipment maintenance, nursing, and criminal justice.

Cosmetology is the largest certificate-granting program that has the least likelihood of setting graduates up to make adequate earnings, the analysis showed.

Measuring the Value of College

Third Way, a nonprofit organization, found that most college programs have a positive economic ROI while many creative programs like drama, stagecraft, and dance often have no economic ROI. It made these assessments by calculating a price-to-earnings premium for each of the 38,000-plus programs attended by more than 2.2 million students who earned degrees or certificates from these programs.

The think tank explored whether a college program left the majority of its graduates with an earnings premium by calculating total out-of-pocket costs that a graduate would incur and then comparing that person’s median salary with the median salary of a high school graduate with no college experience.

Out of the 1.3 million students who graduated from a public college program, about 1 million, or 76%, were “earning enough to pay down their educational costs within 10 years or less,” Third Way reported.

Earning a bachelor’s degree requires commitment and time — more than four years for most students. About 63% of students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college in fall 2013 completed that degree at the same institution within six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

The true value of a college program is determined by factors ranging from academic rigor to social interaction. An earnings premium, while important, is not the only metric for determining the value of higher education.

“If a high proportion of programs within a specific field of study leave the majority of graduates earning below someone with no college experience whatsoever,” Third Way says in its report, “it doesn’t necessarily mean that it provides no societal value as a whole.”

Some may wonder What is college like?, and the truth is that college is a unique time to follow your passions, meet new people, learn new things, take on new challenges, and gain precious life experience and fond memories.

The Cost of Higher Education

The total cost of attendance that colleges publish includes tuition and fees, books and supplies, and room and board per academic year.

In 2019-20, the average cost of attendance for first-time, full-time undergraduate students at four-year public institutions exceeded $25,000 for students who lived on campus or away from family off campus, according to NCES data.

The average cost of attendance exceeded $53,000 for full-time students attending four-year private nonprofit colleges in 2019-20, NCES data show.

(Most students don’t pay that “sticker price.” Most pay net price , which subtracts government or institutional grants and scholarships. Still, costs can add up.)

Thankfully, there are multiple options and guides on how to pay for college.

Just because college comes at a monetary cost does not mean your investment in higher education is worthless. On the contrary, spending time, energy, and resources on postsecondary academia often carries a social value far greater than the cost of tuition.

Tackling Student Loan Debt

College programs with the highest economic ROI, such as registered nursing and engineering technology, may leave those graduates with a sizable earnings premium to pay down their educational debt within five years.

Still, the burden of student loan debt is no fun for millions of Americans.

What is the average student loan debt? Data from the Federal Reserve shows that the nation has more than $1.7 trillion in cumulative student loan debt from federal and private lenders, and the National Student Loan Data System counts 43 million borrowers of federal student loans, totaling about $1.6 trillion as of March 2021. These figures suggest that the average student loan debt is about $40,000 per borrower.

When federal student loans do not meet all of a student’s needs, some turn to private student loans to bridge the gap. Private education loans, from private lenders, don’t come with the same protections that federal student loans do, so they are often considered after all other forms of financial aid have been exhausted.

College is worth the expense for most graduates, but it is advisable to consider the costs of higher education and explore whether you should choose a college based on price.

The Takeaway

Earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree usually yields a good return on investment, and even certificate-granting programs often prove worthwhile. Postsecondary education also can broaden your network of friends, colleagues, and professional references, making college worth it.

Need help paying for higher education? SoFi offers private student loans with competitive rates, flexible terms, and no fees. Adding a co-signer may help strengthen your profile.

Learn More

Photo credit: iStock/FG Trade


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