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Comparing the Pros and Cons of Going to College

By Melissa Brock · January 23, 2023 · 10 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

Comparing the Pros and Cons of Going to College

More and more young people are on the fence about going to a traditional four-year college. One popular decision-making strategy is to create a list of pros and cons of going to college. To get you started, we’re going deep into the benefits and downsides of attending college.

Keep reading to learn how college is correlated to more positive outcomes for grads, from lower unemployment to better health, as well as the financial risks.

On the Fence About Going to College?

Feeling torn about college can be a natural result of low motivation to continue schooling, a good job situation, or nontraditional career goals. Most people of all educational backgrounds would agree that college is not for everyone.

If you have a great job lined up now, waiting to attend school might make sense. On the other hand, if you need a degree to fulfill your goal of becoming a wildlife biologist, you may have little choice but to sign up for classes. The key is to be honest with yourself and clear about the consequences of your decision.

Pros of Going to College

It’s important to look at reasons both for and against going to college to avoid falling prey to “confirmation bias.” The term refers to our tendency to look for evidence, information, and ideas that confirm our beliefs. For example, if your gut is telling you college is not for you, you may unconsciously look for evidence that you shouldn’t go — without considering opposing reasons why you should.

Higher Earning Potential

One of the major reasons to attend college is salary potential. Let’s take a look at the median weekly earnings across various degree levels, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

•   Doctoral degree: $1,909

•   Professional degree: $1,924

•   Master’s degree: $1,574

•   Bachelor’s degree: $1,334

•   Associate degree: $963

•   Some college, no degree: $899

•   High school diploma: $809

•   Less than a high school diploma: $626

According to these figures, a worker with a bachelor’s degree makes $27,300 more per year than a high school grad.

For recent bachelor’s degree graduates (ages 22 to 27), the median annual income reached $52,000 in 2021. Meanwhile, their same-age peers who obtained high school degrees only earned $30,000 per year.

Access to More Jobs

Candidates with a college degree have access to a wider variety of jobs. Prior to the 1980s, two-thirds of jobs required at most a high school diploma. But by 2027, 70% of all workers will need some college under their belts, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Value of Learning

When you head into a college classroom, you learn more than just the job skills required in the white-collar workforce. You also learn critical thinking, time management and organization, money management, writing and speaking, teamwork, and project management.

Those who don’t attend college may not have the opportunity to develop specific skills that employers are looking for.

Networking

College offers opportunities to network on campus, through classes, career fairs, student organizations, and more. Career development offices at colleges and universities also help students network and connect with career and internship opportunities.

Some College Degrees’ High Return on Investment

Certain college programs offer a higher return on investment by allowing students to recoup their educational investment in five years or less. The list of bachelor’s degree programs with a high return on investment (ROI) include:

•   Nursing – including nursing administration and research

•   Engineering – including electrical, industrial, aeronautical, and petroleum

•   Dental support services and allied professions

•   Construction management

•   Quality control and safety technologies

Associate degree earners can find the highest ROI in the following majors:

•   Nursing – including nursing administration and research

•   Dental support services and allied professions

•   Health diagnostic, intervention, and treatment professions

•   Medical laboratory science / research and allied professions

•   Computer programming

•   Electromechanical instrumentation and maintenance technologies

•   Electrical engineering technologies

•   Industrial production technologies

•   Drafting/design engineering technologies

Lower Unemployment

Individuals who earn a bachelor’s degree are half as likely to be jobless compared to high school grads. And during times of economic upheaval, college graduates fare better.

For example, the unemployment rate for recent college grads hit 6.9% during the recession of 2008-2009. Not so bad compared to the unemployment rate for all young workers, which crested at 15.8% in 2010.

Today, the jobless rate for bachelor’s degree holders is less than 2%.

Lower Poverty

A total of 10% of the U.S. adult population reported earnings at or below the poverty level in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Digging through the data shows that adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher experience the lowest levels of poverty.

Adults who reported being at or below the poverty line obtained the following levels of education:

•   Less than a high school diploma: 26%

•   High school degree or equivalent: 35%

•   Some college or associate’s degree: 26%

•   Bachelor’s degree or higher: 14%

Healthier

College graduates, on the whole, are more likely to be healthier. They may lead healthier lifestyles than non-college graduates because a college education stresses human development, which encompasses health and longevity.

College graduates are also more likely to have health insurance. Adults with some college or an associate degree are twice as likely not to have insurance coverage compared to those with at least a bachelor’s degree.

Better Educated Children

Studies suggest that parents who place a priority on educational attainment and model achievement for their kids (including going to college) typically have children who also value education. This leads to better-educated children.

More Likely To Save for Retirement

Most companies no longer offer pension plans to workers, so individuals must create their own retirement savings plan or join one offered by an employer. College graduates are more likely to contribute to a retirement plan like a 401(k). Even when high school graduates have access to similar plans, college grads contribute 26% more to their retirement plans than their high school graduate counterparts.

Cons of Going to College:

The cost of college, the availability of high-paying jobs that don’t require a degree, and underemployment — there is a long list of reasons why paying for college may not make sense for you.

Cost of College

The average cost of attendance (tuition, fees, and room and board) for an undergraduate education increased 169% between 1980 and 2020, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

These costs may encourage you to begin thinking about alternatives to college, particularly if you or your family will struggle to come up with the money to pay for college. Student loans may also be a challenge to pay back later on.

Recommended: Private Student Loans vs Parent Plus Loans

Cost of Tuition

Tuition is typically the most expensive part of attending college. According to the most recent information from the National Center for Educational Statistics, the average tuition cost for first-time, full-time undergraduate students in 2019-2020 was:

•   Public four-year institutions: $9,400

•   Private nonprofit four-year institutions: $36,700

•   Private for-profit four-year institutions: $19,100

However, it’s important to remember that many students pay far less than the sticker price to attend college. The cost of attendance displayed on a college website may not be the amount it will cost you to attend.

Opportunity Cost of Time Spent Not Working

When you attend college, your available hours to work are reduced by classes and studying. You may spend up to two years in a classroom for an associate degree, or lose four years to obtain a bachelor’s degree. You’ll also lose out on income you could have been earning.

High-Paying No-Degree Jobs

Some high-paying jobs don’t require a college degree. Often, individuals can make up for a lack of degree by showcasing on-the-job experience. Here is a list of jobs that don’t require a degree:

•   Patrol officer

•   Home health aide

•   Personal care aide

•   Wind turbine technician

•   Recreation and fitness worker

•   Massage therapist

•   Landscaper and groundskeeper

•   Medical assistant

•   Computer support specialist

Underemployed College Graduates

Underemployment refers to recent college graduates (ages 22 to 27) with a bachelor’s degree or higher who are working in a job that doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree. In February 2022, about 41.4% of recent U.S. college graduates were underemployed in the United States.

Dropping Out

Less than half of college students graduate on time, and more than 1 million students drop out of college every year. The problem with dropping out is that you might get saddled with student loan debt but not have the degree to show for it.

Some of the risk factors for dropping out include part-time enrollment in college, full-time employment while attending school, gap years and leaves of absence, and students who are not dependent on their parents.

Earning Potential of Different Majors for College Graduates

The major you choose can affect your income. However, it’s important to remember that majoring in history doesn’t prevent you from going to work for an insurance company. Still, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, your major still matters.

Top-paying college majors earn $3.4 million more over a lifetime than the lowest-paying tier of majors. The highest earners belong to STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math), health, and business. These jobs typically earn $65,000 or more annually over the course of a career, with an entry-level salary of $37,000.

Is College Right for You?

Let’s put some pros and cons of college side-by-side. You may consider adding to them based on your own thoughts and research.

Pros of Attending College

Cons of Attending College

Higher earning potential High cost
Access to more jobs Opportunity cost of time spent not working
More learning opportunities The availability of high-paying, no-degree jobs
Networking opportunities Underemployed college graduates
High ROI for some degrees The possibility of dropping out
Lower unemployment
Lower poverty
Health benefits
Better educated children
Higher likelihood of saving for retirement

Alternatives to College

A traditional four-year institution isn’t the only type of college you can attend. You can also consider attending a trade school, community college, industry-specific education program, or even learning on-the-job. Let’s go over the details of each of these opportunities, which can be more cost-effective than other educational institutions.

Trade School

A trade school (also called a technical or vocational school) teaches students skills for specific occupations, often for in-demand fields. Students can learn mechanical trades, truck driving, cosmetology, and more, and earn a certificate for their learning efforts. Trade schools often cost less than traditional four-year colleges and universities, so graduates may end up with less student loan debt.

Many trade schools expect students to complete an apprenticeship with an experienced practitioner. Full program training may last between three months and a year.

Recommended: What Trade Jobs Make the Most Money?

Community College

A community college is a tax-funded public college that, like trade school, usually offers a cheaper alternative to a four-year college experience. Community colleges usually offer one- or two-year associate degrees, certificates, or workforce training. Community college degrees often transfer to four-year institutions, allowing students to move over to a flagship state university.

Community colleges may offer flexible class schedules, often allowing students to work or take care of family at the same time. About 30% of students are enrolled in community colleges.

Industry-Specific Education Programs

Sector-based training, where people are trained for jobs in high-demand fields, is on the rise. This training may focus on health care, information technology, advanced manufacturing, or transportation and logistics. Employers offer the training to middle-skilled candidates, mutually benefiting workers and companies that need to fill jobs.

Learning on the Job

Employers will sometimes hire uncredentialed candidates with the understanding that individuals will secure certifications within a certain timeframe. Such training is typically paid for by the company. Workers benefit by getting paid while they’re in school and receiving free education.

The Takeaway

While a bachelor’s degree is associated with numerous benefits, from lower unemployment to better health, remember that correlation is not causation. If you’re ambitious and creative with good people skills, you may do just as well without an expensive 4-year college degree. Alternatives include community college, trade school, and learning on the job. It’s true that some careers require a bachelor’s degree, but many high-paying jobs do not. Be honest about your motives, and carefully consider the pros and cons of your decision.

3 Student Loan Tips

  1. Need a private student loan to cover your school bills? Because approval for a private student loan is based on creditworthiness, a cosigner may help a student get loan approval and a lower rate.
  2. Even if you don’t think you qualify for financial aid, you should fill out the FAFSA form. Many schools require it for merit-based scholarships, too. You can submit it as early as Oct. 1.
  3. Master’s degree or graduate certificate? Private or federal student loans can smooth the path to either goal.
Cover up to 100% of school-certified costs including tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and transportation with a private student loan from SoFi.

FAQ

What are the biggest reasons for not going to college?

There are a wide variety of college pros and cons, but the biggest reasons involve not being able to afford it, not being ready for the opportunity, and already having a job. If you’re deeply worried about the cost but still want to go to college, there are tuition-free colleges you may want to consider.

What are the most important reasons to attend college?

One of the most important reasons to attend college is to be able to achieve a career goal that you have set for yourself. Even if you don’t know exactly what you want your major to be, you may pursue higher education to discover that goal. Another important reason to attend college involves acquiring skills that help your overall development, both personal and professional.

How does college compare to trade school as far as cost and benefit go?

The average tuition cost of a trade school is much lower than a four-year college or university. Trade school can cost up to $33,000 on the high end of the spectrum, but typically costs between $5,000 and $15,000 in total.


Photo credit: iStock/FG Trade

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.
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