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Overcoming obstaclesVicki Nelson
As you help your high school student plan for what comes next, do you find yourself wondering if college is the wisest choice?
According to the College Board’s most recent Trends in Higher Education report, tuition continues to rise faster than inflation, financial aid and income. Housing and meals, class and activity fees, and textbooks add to the overall cost. In addition, for many students, time spent in college means time out of the workforce.
College is a big investment. What if the financial sacrifice you and your student make now doesn’t pay off in the future?
We’ve all heard about young people with $100,000 history degrees working at Starbucks after graduation, worrying they’ll never be able to pay off their loans. If you know someone in this situation, you know how very real and frustrating it is.
However, this kind of story is the exception to the rule. The “rule,” as the 2016 College Board report outlines, is that a significant percentage of student borrowers (38 percent) owe less than $10,000 in student loans. The “rule” is that those borrowing in the $100,000 range are primarily graduate students, not undergraduates (and many of those grad students will enter highly paid, specialized fields).
In fact, the College Board discovered that the average student borrower pays off their loans andrecoups the money lost from being out of the workforce by the time they’re 34.
Okay, so perhaps your student won’t be crushed by loan debt, especially if they keep their options open and consider in-state public schools and community colleges. Aren’t there appealing alternatives to higher education?
It’s true that many good jobs don’t require college degrees. Real estate agents, law enforcement officers, property managers, electricians and other mechanic, installation and repair occupations require on-the-job training, apprenticeships or certification programs in lieu of a traditional four-year degree.
Even in fields traditionally requiring degrees, you may know of marketers who never studied marketing, self-taught website developers, and entrepreneurs who created successful businesses out of trial-and-error and a little bit of genius.
It is possible to bring home a good paycheck without a college degree. But here are three important measurements of the value of a college degree:
Even within the same company or industry, employees with four-year degrees are higher up on the pay scale than those without, according to the College Board report. Across ten different job categories (ranging from retail sales to sales reps and first-line supervisors), those with a bachelor’s degree consistently made more than those with a high school diploma.
The College Board reports that “in 2015, when the unemployment rate for 25- to 34-year-olds with at least a bachelor’s degree was 2.6 percent, 8.1 percent of high school graduates in this age range were unemployed.” Your chances of being unemployed are more than twice as high without a four-year degree.
Studies show that, on average, college graduates are also more likely to own a home and save for retirement.
The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce predicts that “by 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the economy will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school.”
Rather than decreasing, it seems that the value of a college degree is only increasing. Why? What makes a four-year degree so beneficial?
Regardless of your student’s major, college helps cultivate skills that will serve them well in any career. While some of these skills are developed by taking specific courses that emphasize writing, speaking and research, other skills are honed by the college experience as a whole:
Can these skills be learned outside of the college experience? Of course. But college provides a particularly rich environment in which to master them, and a college degree documents quality time spent in this environment.
There’s no doubt that college is an investment. It requires a significant financial sacrifice up front. But the second aspect of an investment — the reward you expect to reap later — is equally true of college. College places your student in a fertile networking environment, helps cultivate skills and habits that make them a valuable employee, and provides the baseline they need to apply for most high-paying jobs. David Leonhardt, writing for the New York Times, heartily agrees: “For all the struggles that many young college graduates face, a four-year degree has probably never been more valuable.”