When you’re facing thousands of dollars in tuition costs and potential loan debt, it’s only natural to wonder if a college degree is worth it.

The short answer is that it’s complicated. It’s difficult to provide mathematical proof that investing in a college education will provide real-dollar value throughout your life since there are many other factors at play. For instance, the type of career you want to pursue, how much you ultimately pay for college, and where you live post-graduation can all play a role in the value of your degree.

For some students, a traditional college degree may not be the best choice if you want to work in a trade like plumbing or construction. However, that doesn’t mean your classroom days are over. If you ultimately decide not to pursue a bachelor’s degree, it’s still in your best interest to learn marketable skills through a certificate or trade school program.

That being said, attending college is often a smart decision for students. In fact, for the most lucrative career paths, a college degree can be a minimum requirement just to get a job. Here are some reasons why a college degree is not only necessary, but worth the expense.

A Degree Can Boost Your Income, and Improve Your Résumé

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, earning potential and educational attainment are directly related. For instance, bachelor’s degree holders over age 25 earned a median of $1,334 per week in 2021 versus those who completed only high school and earned $809 per week. Degree credentials open up more doors to jobs that pay higher wages. Even for positions that don’t necessarily require college, having a degree is likely to put you at an advantage over a fellow qualified job seeker who did not finish college.

However, in the past few years, some employers are dropping degree requirements. Some students find deferring from college for a year or several years can also help them test the waters and see what it’s like working—and applying to a job—without a college degree. If you’re not sure if college is right for you, taking a gap year can give you options.  

College Can Be a Life-Changing Experience

It’s okay not to have a clear idea of your future career. Not only are college degrees a prerequisite for certain fields, but college gives you the opportunity to explore different fields, practice new ways of thinking, and experience new things. By broadening your perspective and learning about a variety of subjects, you can discover a career path that interests and suits you, rather than building experience in an industry that may not interest you down the road. 

You also don’t need to pick a major prior to enrollment; entering college as undeclared can help you home in on interests as you explore different classes and fields. There are many subjects you may not have been exposed to in high school, and many colleges have degree requirements across disciplines. This means you can spend your first few semesters sampling classes as an undeclared student before officially declaring a major. Plus, college provides the chance to meet knowledgeable professors and students, take on a leadership role within a group or team, and develop skills you’ll take with you throughout life. You may even get to study abroad, meet industry leaders, or score a great internship with your desired company.

It Might Be a Career Prerequisite

Even though some professions are dropping degree requirements, it’s still the exception rather than the rule in many industries. Many professional careers today require at least a bachelor’s degree to get started, and some want graduate-level education. For instance, if you’d like to become a doctor, lawyer, or accountant, be prepared that an undergraduate degree is just the beginning.  Of course, you’re not just earning a degree for its own sake. When you’re on a professional track, you’ll need a strong knowledge base, critical thinking skills, and industry-specific know-how to thrive—all of which a college degree will afford you.

It Might Not Be As Expensive As You Think

There’s nothing wrong with choosing a school that is more affordable. Don’t overlook community colleges and state universities, which offer a quality education for what’s typically a lower price tag than that of private institutions. Many Ivy League schools, such as Princeton, offer strong need-based financial aid, with grants covering up to 100% of financial need for students who qualify. Also, be sure to apply for financial aid and look for scholarships to help offset the cost. Value is all about getting the most bang for your educational buck, and minimizing the cost is one way to do that.

Some Majors Have a Proven Record of Strong ROI

Try My College Plan, an award-winning tool that helps determine how your college costs may stack up against your potential income. For example, if you are studying engineering where the starting salaries approach six figures, you can better justify choosing a more expensive institution. Also, if you’re on a track that includes graduate school, remember that you have more years of educational costs ahead of you.

Instead of thinking of college in terms of dollars and cents, think of it as a huge investment in yourself and your future. The more hard work and effort you put into your schooling, the more value you’ll get from your degree because it will leave you well-positioned for career fulfillment and success.

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