There has been quite a bit of talk recently about the value of a college education. With decreasing salaries and increasing tuition, people are asking whether going to college makes sense financially. While there will always be exceptions to the rule, the numbers prove that a college education pays off in the short and long term. The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) reported that those with bachelor's degrees have earned more than those without since 1995. In 2010, that difference equated to $15,000 per year. But those with advanced degrees -- master's, doctoral and professional -- had the highest salaries and made almost $40,000 more than those with bachelor's degrees. These graduates also had the lowest unemployment rates. And before you ask -- yes, this is simplifying the argument, because we have to take into account the fact tuition is expensive, earning a degree takes time and there are differences among types of degrees received.
So, let's use a very simple comparison. Assuming the same tuition rates and salary expectations as those in 2010 and without taking into account inflation or raises, we have two students. One (Student A) who has decided to not pursue a higher degree in order to make $25,000 per year and the other (Student B) who has decided to attend a four-year university. Over a career that lasts until he is 60, Student A will make just over $1 million. Student B took out a loan for $200,000 to pay for college and will earn a salary for four years less than Student A. Over his career, however, he will make more than $1.5 million. The degree will have earned him almost $300,000 more after we take into account the loan. These numbers would change drastically if we take into account the fact that Student B might go to graduate school. And remember that most graduate programs in the U.S. require a bachelor's degree for admission.
So is it just the degree that leads to greater income. Of course not. A degree is only as strong as the student wants it to be. Someone can go to the best school in the country and come out no more employable than he was before if he does not work hard and chooses to hang out for four years. The benefits to the degree include utilizing the school's network, which can have a long lasting positive influence. Often, students are able to connect with employers because of the shared experience of attending the same school. Getting a foot in the door can many times be the hardest part of the job search process, and a school's network can help make that first step a little easier. And with the advent of sites like LinkedIn, staying tapped in is easier than ever.
And, in the long term, the degree is valuable for reasons other than just its income generating potential. The time students spend in any sort of educational environment increases their skill set, their ability to problem-solve and think critically, their network, and their social skills. For many students, going to college is also a time to live independently, to handle personal finances, and to develop socially. These skills are fundamental to a person's success. The relationships that a student makes in college can last a lifetime. They might lead to personal relationships and/or professional relationships throughout one's life. And more importantly, the experience can give students exposure to the types of jobs they want to have and to the types of lives they want to lead.
College is not right for everyone and I am often the first to recognize that. But don't be misled into thinking that going to college is universally a waste of time and money. Like with any experience, you have to make the most of it. The degree itself is just a piece of fancy paper. The experience behind it represents your knowledge, your talent and your work ethic. Those are what actually have value. So think deeply about whether the college experience will enhance your life's goals. While you might decide otherwise, the process of contemplating it will show your ability to think critically -- the very skill that college is meant to enhance.
Purvi S. Mody is co-owner of Insight Education, an educational consulting firm that helps students throughout the Bay Area to achieve their educational goals. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.