Is College Worth It?

Want to make parents of teens nervous?  Even a little P.O.’d?  Ask them the above.

They definitely do not like questioning the base premise: i.e., that whatever it costs, whatever sacrifices you have to make, you absolutely must send your kid to college. 

Working Girl loves questioning base premises.  She’s always found conventional wisdom to be, well, conventional.  And she has long wondered whether getting a college education is always always necessary.  Don’t get her wrong, WG loves learning, loves books and ivy-covered halls and all the rest, and feels that college is a wonderful thing.  But is it automatically a wonderful thing, for every young person, no matter who she or he is or what he/she wants to do in life??  Is it worth, say, huge crippling debt?

However, she has learned not to voice such heretical thoughts to her friends-with-teens because she’s always frightened by the wild-eyed looks she gets in return.

That’s why it’s impossible to resist pointing out a humble little article buried in the bowels of today’s Wall St. Journal, entitled “What’s a Degree Really Worth?”  Turns out that some of the “proof” for why you-gotta-get-a-degree is a bit suspect.   You can read it for yourself but here are a few highlights:

  • The statistics you hear the most (that, over their lifetimes, college grads earn nearly a million dollars more than high school graduates) are based on some pretty crude calculations of averages.  Plus, they’re using old numbers.  Note that in 1999, average college costs were $15K a year; today they are $26K.
  • Comparisons of lifetime earnings don’t take into account income taxes or the cost of college itself.  Seems like a huge oversight. 
  • At least one expert thinks that the million-dollar number is really more like $279K. 
  • Even the College Board has admitted that its old claim that a BA is worth $800K is “misleading,” and has removed it from its website.

Just in case you’re not wild-eyed enough, Working Girl would like to add:  Who’s to say that people who go to college and do well there are just, by definition, people who would normally do well in life, whatever their formal education?

P.S.  One last thought: If you are in school, or plan to go to school, congratulations!  Study hard.

Update:  For some fascinating anecdotal data, check out Gina’s comment below.  Thanks, Gina.


  • Melissa says:

    Good for you, WG! We need more people who question the status quo 🙂 I’m a mom, and I agree that college after high school should not be an automatic given.

  • Bill G says:

    WG, You’re absolutely right! “Is college worth it?” is not only a legitimate question, it is something those parents who take exception to the question need to think about.

    Everyone — particularly those in their teens and early twenties who are making decisions that will affect many years in their future — must find out what it is that they want to do for a living that they can be excited and passionate about. Then if college makes that possible or is a significant compliment to it, go to college.

    Simply going to college without knowing why one is going (I mean why, other than “to get a degree”) is putting the cart before the horse.

  • Bill G says:

    P.S. I speak from experience. My parents were BIG on the “you MUST go to college” line. So I, and my siblings, all went.

    I, for example, have a master’s degree in chemistry. Know what? I hated chemistry!! But I went that route because it was the path of least resistance through college (due to scholarships). I am not working as a chemist now, and my degree is of little value to me.

    What I wish my parents would have known to push me to do is to find my vocation — my “calling” so to speak. If I had known what that was before I went to college, I would have had an exciting goal, I would have gone to college for that area, and I would have done better in college. As it is, I am at a stage in life when it would be difficult for me to go back to college, so I will probably never be able to do what I should have been doing to earn my living all along.

    In that sense, going to college without having a reason to go (yet) was not only costly, it did me a terrible disservice.

  • Fig says:

    I chose to not fully complete college. I’m 10 years out of high school and can honestly say that I’ve never had a real job.
    I have however lived all over the United States and went for about a year and some to France. I’ve taken the time to acquire books and to read and to stay as knowledgeable as possible.

    However, upon my return to the United States as a late twenty something and trying to get a ‘real job’ here, I have found that I don’t have the skill of “stick to it even when it’s dumb” that most college graduates have acquired for themselves. Most employment in the United States requires that skill. I am struggling to find work which is interesting enough for me to actually do.

    Really, If you want to be part of the crowd, Go to college. The degree gets you into the club. And sometimes it’s easier to get things done if you belong to the club.

  • Karen Burns says:

    Fig, you’ve put your finger on a couple good points here. Two (perfectly rational) reasons for going to college are to demonstrate that you can stick to a project until it’s completed, and to become part of the club (you can make great connections in college).

    My point was simply to question reflexive decision making (you’ve gotta go, no matter what, no matter the cost). For some people, getting a degree has entailed enormous long-term debt that has seriously limited their options in life. That’s all I’m trying to say.

    And, for sure, Bill, it’s good to know why you’re in college in the first place! Sometimes it’s just part of the journey, though. You can’t wait until you’re absolutely sure of something before making a move; missteps are bound to happen. Plus, are you really sure it’s too late to change course and do what you want to do? Maybe not….

  • Lesley says:

    Great topic. We just advised our 18 year old to drop out and travel the world. She is smart, driven and completely clueless as to what she wants to do with her life. Her friends are shocked that we support her, much less suggested this course of action.
    At some point I hope she checks out the college experience; I certainly had a wonderful time there. For now, she is saving for and planning her first working trip to Dublin.

  • WG – Thanks for saying what I’ve been thinking! I wonder about the value of today’s college degrees.
    Here’s the college scoop on the grandkids in our family:

    Grad #1 has $80,000 in student loan debt. Can’t find a job with the BA – looking for 18 months now. Works as a bartender.

    Grad #2 Has a BA in Journalism and couldn’t find a job. Mom and Dad paid for school – over 100,000 – plus some scholarships. Grad gave up, signed up for a FREE program, and is now an EMT in Hawaii.

    NON Grad #1 No debt. Earns $100,000 each year as a Construction Manager building shopping centers etc. Has done that for five years now. Took a class to learn to read blueprints.

    NON-Grad #2 Earns $60,000 each year managing a restaurant. Going to school at night (pay-as-you-go so it may take a while) to become a teacher and earn way less money. Hummm…

    NON-Grad #3 Went to school to become a beautician. Earns about $40,000 and works wherever the military spouse takes them.

    NON-Grad #4 Went into the military. Has had four military promotions and has a promising career ahead.

    NON Grad #5 Went into the military. Has had three military promotions and has a promising career ahead. Going to school at night using government funding. Smart kid.

  • Des says:

    College does not assure anything but debt and contacts.

    I went to school, for 6 years, triple major (Business, CS, Art History) couldn’t decide) and then got a 100k+ offer before I finished and haven’t gone back yet.

    I now make between 174-197k/year and I work for a major public company in the Bay Area,

    I also have 21 patents in process.

    College did NOTHING for my career. Very happy I went, would like to go back and get a degree in something fun like Physics or Math or Painting, but hard to justify the time/cost now.

    For some is needed, they need the contacts. For people like me that make contacts walking to lunch, it’s only real value is good study habit’s, and learning how to hold your liquor =)

  • Excellent points, Working Girl – this was forwarded to me by a friend who read my post about the overwhelming pressure to provide for my son (he’s only 6 months) AND save for retirment AND save for college. This provided a much needed alternate view. Thank you!

  • […] Posted by Melissa on March 8, 2010 This post is one that has been slowly forming ever since Karen Burns wrote a post on the Working Girl blog entitled Is College Worth It? […]

  • […] This post is one that has been slowly forming ever since Karen Burns wrote a post on the Working Girl blog entitled Is College Worth It? […]

  • Tiffany says:

    Well….I’m 20 years old, and ready to be serious about a real job. I have a decent job taking care of mentally handicapped persons, but the environment isn’t for me. I went to college for a year and have since dropped out. The debt is already enormous on the loan I’m paying back! I know that I am smart and that I have skills but really cannot see myself in a school for 4+ years. I’ve looked for so many resources as to what else I can do. Help??

  • Tiffany says:

    P.S. The stress is also enormous. The stigma attached to someone asking you if you’re in school, and you reply No, is not fun. And totally unnecessary!

  • […] Karen Burns at Working Girl also has a post on Is College Worth It? […]

  • Becca says:

    This is fascinating! I think questioning the status quo is always a good idea, because it makes people think. I think that it is an extremely individual decision, but when comparing myself and my husband to most of our friends, I would say that college has benefited us greatly. Part of that is due to our particular degrees. If one goes to school for, say, communications, or journalism, you might just be getting a degree where you can’t get a job from it. And if you go to school where the tuition is significant, that just complicates matters more. My husband and I are getting degrees with high hire rates, and we went to a cheap state school, so I think its worked out best for us to go. I’m graduating this year with my Master’s in Occupational Therapy, where the market is fantastic, and he is graduating with his degree in electrical engineering. We both went to a community college for the first two years, and then transferred to a four-year state college, so our debt is completely reasonable considering what we will be paid. Our friends all live paycheck to paycheck at dead end jobs. I’m not at all saying the way we did things is right for everyone, I just thought I’d share a college success story =). Good luck to everyone deciding.

  • Nick says:

    You’ve answered the wrong part of your own question. While you may hate your degree, or you may find school boring, or whatever-the-hell-else you might say, this COUNTRY needs COLLEGE EDUCATED PEOPLE. For the SIMPLEST THINGS! Like VOTING! College students are more prepared to ask tougher questions, read between the lines, and vote on an EDUCATED BASIS!

    Education is what the majority of our voters LACK. They don’t read platforms, don’t follow an APPROPRIATE news source…and yet, lesser educated citizens have the largest percentage of the national vote. So, when somebody votes for McCain because he’s republican, or votes for Obama because he’s black, AND NOT BECAUSE THEIR PLATFORMS ALIGN WITH THE VOTERS’ VIEWS AND NEEDS AND WANTS, we ALL lose. And the only way that can be fixed is with a COLLEGE EDUCATION. They sure as hell don’t teach that in high school (I know…because I just graduated from a leading liberal arts college with magna cum laude honors and a degree in economics and mathematics).

    Not only that, consider today’s economy. Unemployment is up. Salaries are down. If you want to separate yourself from the pack, GO TO COLLEGE. In fact, most specialists today are telling undergrads to go to grad school because the majority of unemployed citizens looking for professional jobs have not only higher levels of education, but now they have MORE experience because they’ve been employed and laid off.

    Yeah, you can live fine on graduating high school, reading some books, and making $20,000 (that’s a little higher than the poverty line, by the way). But try SUCCEEDING without a college degree, and you’ll all find that those Cinderella stories are few and far between.

    Don’t play devil’s advocate for the sake of playing devil’s advocate…

  • Karen Burns says:

    Some very interesting points in this new NYT article:

    It’s really what I’m talking about.

  • James818 says:

    Interesting reads. As a college student, graduating with my AA from CC, I am still debating going any further. Reason being is I already make over $50k a year only CAUSE of my AA and not to mention my military service (plus 10 Points ).
    Many of my co workers have BA & MA and still make what I make. I can advance trough the system taking exams but seems having a HIGHER degree helps for elite positions that only a handful would get chosen for anyway.
    Im not tooting my own horn but seems the high end salaries just means you pay more in taxes IMO.

    I feel its what you with what you got and the direction that puts you where your going to be.

  • Emily says:

    Hustling prowess and an entrepreneurial spirit is ten times more effective than a college degree.

    I went to a career college and outperformed every single one of my traditional college friends by making 100K by 27. I said laugh all you want indoctrinated cookie cutter people, but I am now MANAGING some of you and was even able to take a year off to travel the world and study philosophy by way of experience (as opposed to 50K and a lot of pot). Many traditional colleges turn out mediocre minds. Knowledge is also no longer power thanks to the Internet so one day, there will be no need for “information” courtsey of institutions.

  • I think that it’s getting to the point where doing college the old-fashioned way is no longer worth it, ie, taking four years in which your main activity in life is attending a brick-and-mortar college. As the previous poster wrote, there’s so much information on the internet that it’s no longer necessary to sink into debt to learn. Also, there are credit-by-exam programs like CLEP through which you can get college credit for that knowledge. A couple of distance learning colleges offer college credit for passing the gre subject exams, and I’m currently studying computer science and mathematics independently in the hopes of being able to pass those exams.

  • Knowledge does not live locked behind the gates of institutions. People can be EDUCATED without going to college. The idea that people need to go to college to learn what they need to vote is beyond ridiculous. I graduated from Stanford. 90% of what I use in my work, I learned in high school.

  • Jaime says:

    I know I’m a bit late but I’d like to comment.

    Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.
    -Mark Twain

    I don’t think you need to go to college to be an educated person anymore. Not with libraries and the internet. These days its more affordable to read and learn online such as through the Khan academy,, and through other educational websites.

    I know some people who graduated college and it didn’t turn them into these great independent critical thinkers. It just didn’t.

    The problem is that a lot of studies compare professionals with college degrees to grads that dropped out and stopped learning and got a job at the local fast food joint.

    That’s like comparing apples and oranges.

    If you’re the type of person who loves to learn, loves to read, and doesn’t mind working smart and networking then you’ll do well regardless of whether or not you went to college.

    My bf got a professional job as a programmer without a college degree, when he was a kid he played video games and wanted to be a game designer, his dad was a programmer so he started reading his dad’s books and learned how to program that way.

    When he was 19 he got his first job as a junior programmer. He’s never been in debt, he has excellent credit and he has gone to college on and off, right now he’s debating whether to get his degree in Computer Science or another field.

    He’s always loved to learn, he reads and learns something new each day, and he works hard. So no I don’t always agree that college is “the way.”

    As for me I’m getting my Associate in General Studies from community college, but my parents paid for most of it. I’m finishing the last 2 classes on my own. No debt here either.

    I just got a new job and I’m not sure if I want to get a bachelor’s, but if I choose to get a bachelor’s then I will pay for it myself by going to a state college for the last 2 years.