Money Management

Is a college degree really worth the long-term debt?

By  Karen Banes

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Opinions are split, but not evenly.

In spite of soaring student debt, often heralded as a crisis by the national media, the majority of students still say it was worth going into debt to get their degree. This is in spite of the fact that US graduates are carrying a staggering $1.5 trillion of debt, and over a quarter of graduates surveyed in 2016 (who still had student loans to pay off) were looking at a very significant $43,000 or more in student loan related debt.

However, according to a 2019 national poll, the majority of graduates (around 61%) said that they thought that their degree was worth the debt they’d incurred. And this was higher among those who had actually graduated with a four year degree. As this Forbes article pointed out, the majority of those who said the debt incurred wasn’t worth it, were those who didn’t end up graduating. What is perhaps most surprising is that even this group was fairly evenly split. Around 47% claimed the debt was worth it, even though they left college without a Bachelor’s degree.

So that’s the opinion of graduates, but are they kidding themselves?

It is true that a degree increases earning power, but is it enough to justify your debt? According to Smart Asset research from 2018, the average annual salary of a US worker with a Bachelor’s degree was $59,124, with an unemployment rate of 2.8%. With a high-school diploma, it was $35,256, with a 5.4% unemployment rate.

Even an unfinished degree gives your earnings a small boost. Those who had completed some college but had no degree were on an average salary of $38,376. It seems likely that these ex-students really are kidding themselves. The small increase in earnings is unlikely to compensate for their debt burden, depending on how much debt they have and how expensive it is.

But for those with a full degree and an extra $15,000 a year to pay off loans? It’s not surprising they feel the debt is justified.

Quote - Is a college degree worth the long term debt?

Does it depend on the degree?

Almost certainly, yes. All education is not equal. A degree in law, medicine, or engineering will undoubtedly pay off, whereas one in liberal arts might not. There are still professions that don’t require a degree and, controversially, some claim that a degree can even hinder you, precisely because of the debt incurred.

Elizabeth Gilbert stresses this point in her book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. She advises young writers to avoid the traditional MFA path, saying it can actually hurt your career as a writer. Not because it will have a negative impact on your writing, but because the debt it generates forces young writers into career choices that prioritize money over artistic integrity and creativity. As Gilbert puts it:

“Nobody needs debt less than an artist.”

 Is college about more than financial ROI?

Again, almost certainly yes. College is about spreading your wings, gaining your independence, trying out new activities and experiences that may have nothing to do with your formal education, but everything to do with your personal growth.

It’s also, significantly, about the people you meet. An often overlooked aspect of college life is that you potentially graduate with hundreds of contacts who will be in your industry, or related ones, throughout your working life. This goes for both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ subjects. Knowing the right people to collaborate with on your next engineering project, fashion collection or TV production can be invaluable. Teachers find out about new positions when members of their network mention someone at their school is quitting. Executives in industries such as advertising and design are likely to draw on their own contacts when employing new team members, and when looking for freelancers.

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So should I take on debt to get a college degree or not?

Frustratingly, the answer is still maybe. Here are the things you need to consider:

  • Is a degree important in my chosen career?
  • How much debt will I have take on?
  • How much extra will I earn with this degree?
  • Will that ‘extra’ more than cover loan repayments?
  • Will I definitely complete this degree?
  • Is college going to benefit me in other ways?

There are millionaires with college degrees, and millionaires who dropped out of high school. For the average American, college is (often) worth the price tag. But not for every profession and not for every individual. As with any debt, your student loans are something you should take on with a plan as to how you’ll pay them off, so crunch the numbers first. Know how much debt you’re taking on, what your interest rates will be, how long you’ll take to pay off loans, and perhaps most importantly, what your projected earnings will be with your chosen degree.

Karen Banes

Karen Banes

I’m a freelance writer specializing in online business, personal finance, travel and lifestyle. I also work as a content creator for hire, helping brands and businesses tell their stories, grow their audiences, and reach their ideal customers. I’ve lived, worked and studied in six countries, across three continents. Stop by my blog TheSavvySolopreneur.net to learn how to run your own (very) small business on your own terms. You can also connect with me at my website KarenBanes.com or follow me on Medium.com

Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended to encourage any lifestyle changes without careful consideration and consultation with a qualified professional. This article is for reference purposes only, is generic in nature, is not intended as individual advice and is not financial or legal advice.

10 replies on “Is a college degree really worth the long-term debt?”

Hey @kbanes, thanks for taking on this very polarizing topic. I appreciate the insight from both perspectives. For reference, I am a graduate of a “proper 4-year University” not an online college, and yet I am one of the growing population who questions whether it will make sense to send MY kids to a 4-year college. At this point, I think that unless you have a child who, at 18 years of age, knows EXACTLY what they want to do, and there is a clear precedent in that profession that an advanced degree is required (electrical engineering, for example), then it is probably best to encourage them to work for a while to see if something else strikes their fancy.

For example, I was a molecular biology major, but I have never used it professionally, so one could argue that my parents wasted their money on my education, big time. But you could also argue that the EXPERIENCE of going to a highly respected University, living on my own, learning responsibility, making lifelong contacts and associations, and establishing my own moral and ethical center, were all benefits of my 4 year education.

What do you think about encouraging kids to intern/work, join the Peace Corp or military, or if you’re really lucky, travel the world for a year or two after high school before enrolling in college (or not)?

Interesting point. I’m definitely a fan of the ‘gap year,’ whether that’s to work, travel or volunteer. And I think with college degrees costing more and more it makes sense to wait until you’re really sure of what you want to do before investing in one (or not). That’s especially true with so many people embarking on degrees in their 20s, 30s and beyond. Most of them have a much clearer idea of what they want by then and are a lot less likely to ‘waste’ money on a degree they won’t use (though as you say, the experience is not necessarily wasted anyway). I guess it’s different for everyone. My aim with this piece was just to take a closer look at whether a college education is worth it, given the amount of debt some students are taking on to achieve it, and as I concluded, it depends on a lot of things. If you’re unsure, (about any of those things) then taking a year or two to decide is definitely a good idea.

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