Is a Bachelor’s Degree Worth It?

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Earning your bachelor’s degree can help you qualify for more job opportunities, earn a higher salary over your lifetime and add to your skill set in ways that may benefit your career growth.

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But deciding whether a bachelor’s degree is worth it comes down to your situation—and weighing the potential outcomes against the time commitment and cost of an undergraduate degree. 

In this article, we’ll discuss the benefits of earning your bachelor’s degree. We’ll also touch on ways you can determine whether a bachelor’s degree is worth it for you, and other options you can explore to achieve more education in lieu of a four-year degree. 

Bachelor’s degree: Return on investment  

A bachelor’s degree is much more than a piece of paper—or a line on your resume. It’s a major investment in your education and personal growth, which may lead to many benefits. Let’s take a look at some of them.  

More career opportunities 

A bachelor’s degree has become a minimum education requirement for many jobs, especially for knowledge workers—or those whose job requires more thinking than manual labor or service labor [1]. As of 2020, 35 percent of jobs require a bachelor’s degree [2]. If you want to get a sense of the education requirements by job title, this spreadsheet from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) can help provide an overview. 

Even if an entry-level job does not require a bachelor’s degree, more advanced roles at the associate or senior level will likely want at least an undergraduate degree. For example, you’ll typically need a bachelor’s degree to be a sales manager, financial manager, or marketing manager, according to the BLS. The median pay for each of those jobs is over $100,000, whereas a marketing assistant makes $43,817 [4], a sales assistant makes $40,104 [5], and a financial assistant $41,915 [6], according to Glassdoor. 

Higher salary potential

Speaking of higher salaries, data from the BLS shows that graduates with a bachelor’s degree earn a median annual US salary of $67,860. That’s significantly more than associate degree holders ($48,776) and high school diploma holders ($40,612) [7].

Bachelor’s degree holders also tend to earn notably more over the course of their lifetime. In a 2016 study published in the journal Demography, men with a bachelor’s degree had more gross earnings compared to high school graduates: $2.43 million compared to $1.53 million. While women with a bachelor’s degree made less than men, they still grossed much more than high school graduates: $1.43 million to $800,000[8].   

Lower unemployment rate 

In general, bachelor’s degree holders tend to experience lower unemployment rates (5.5 percent) than those with a high school diploma (9 percent) or associate degree (7.1 percent). In the recovery from the pandemic, college grads faced less unemployment than high school graduates, according to BLS. As of March 2021, 3.7 percent of college grads were unemployed compared to 6.7 percent of high school graduates [9]. 

Minimum credentials 

Thirty-two percent of those living in the US hold a bachelor’s degree—up from 27.5 percent in 2009 [10]. Each year, nearly 2 million college students in the US graduate with their bachelor’s degree [11]. Having a bachelor’s degree can help you stay competitive with the growing number of job applicants who also hold that credential. 

You may have heard about degree inflation—or the fact that many jobs that don’t require skills you’d likely learn from earning a degree still require a bachelor’s degree in order to qualify for employment—taking place in the US. It’s an important conversation because not all jobs need to make an undergraduate degree a requirement. Even so, a bachelor’s degree is still an important line on your resume to qualify for jobs in a number of lucrative fields, especially at more advanced levels, and remain competitive as a job candidate. 

Benefits of pursuing higher education

You should also look at your overall experience in a bachelor’s degree program as a benefit. The general education courses you take are meant to broaden your overall knowledge, and sharpen your ability to communicate, think critically, work autonomously and collaboratively, and solve problems. The major courses you take are meant to give you a foundational subject knowledge that you can apply to a career path. 

In addition to what you learn, earning a four-year degree takes tenacity and dedication. It can be a sign to employers that you have what it takes to do hard work. Plus, many colleges and universities offer career resources, such as resume help, interview prep, and placement advice. Taking advantage of these tools can be an added bonus. 

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Bachelor’s degree: Time and costs

Now that you have some idea about what you stand to gain from earning a bachelor’s degree, let’s look at what it takes to earn one. 

Time commitment

Full-time students typically take four years to complete their bachelor’s degree. About 414 percent of students graduate in four years or less, with 15 percent taking up to five years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics [12]. There are ways to earn the minimum 120 credits you’ll need to graduate faster, though. Learn more about how to accelerate your bachelor’s degree education

Cost

The cost of a bachelor’s degree depends on a few factors, including whether you choose a public or private institution. Tuition for in-state students at a public four-year institution has a yearly average cost of $10,740 (though for out-of-state students it can jump to $27,560), whereas the average yearly tuition at private institutions is $38,070 [13]. 

A number of colleges and universities now offer online bachelor’s degrees, which can be both a more affordable and flexible option than attending in-person—even when they’re offered by the same brick and mortar institution. While specific numbers vary by institution, the average total cost of an online bachelor’s program ranges between $38,496 and $60,593 (which would translate to $9,624 to $15,148 annually over four years) [14].  

You can offset the cost of your bachelor’s degree by applying for federal financial aid. Depending on your financial situation, you may qualify for grants and financial assistance, or learn about student loans to finance your degree.

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Is a bachelor’s degree right for me? 

In order to answer that bigger question, first consider two important ones: 

  • What are my goals? 

  • Can a bachelor’s degree help me achieve them?

You should understand your reasons for pursuing a bachelor’s degree, and make sure they’re aligned with a clear goal, be it personal, educational, or professional. Once you understand why you want to earn your bachelor’s, ask yourself:  

  • Do I have the time to attend school, either part-time or full-time? 

  • Can I afford the tuition, either with financial aid or not?  

If you do not feel as though you have the time or resources to spend on an undergraduate degree, there are other educational options you should consider. More on that  below. 

Learn more: Should You Go Back to School: 7 Things to Consider

Making the most of your bachelor’s degree 

Earning a bachelor’s degree is not a passive endeavor. While you do have to fulfill certain institutional requirements in order to graduate (like earn a minimum of 120 credits), you have the power to make your bachelor’s degree more impactful by using your time in your undergraduate program effectively. Here are a few ideas: 

1. Pay attention to program fit.

All bachelor’s degree programs are not alike—and you should pay close attention to what makes each one different. The more you know about your personality, your learning style, and what you want to gain from a bachelor’s degree education, the more you can focus on finding the best program fit for you. Spend time researching program descriptions—and even reputations—so you know how each program approaches learning and fosters students. For example, if you know you do better in small classes, then it may be a good idea to apply to schools that have a smaller student population and offer smaller class sizes. If you know that you enjoy learning independently then it may be worth exploring online programs where you complete courses on your own schedule.  

2. Consider a minor or double major.

Thanks to the combination of general education requirements and the major you choose,  you can gain a broader and deeper education with a bachelor’s degree. But you can add to your overall education by selecting a complementary minor or choosing to double major. If you have some idea about what you’d like to do for work after graduation, finding a relevant minor or an appropriate second major may expand upon the foundational subject education you’ll gain in your major.  

3. Find an internship.

More companies increasingly want experience for entry-level jobs, which you can acquire through an internship. Where possible, take advantage of summer sessions by finding and enrolling in an internship related to your potential field. Most colleges and universities will give students credit for internships (many of which are increasingly paid), so you’ll be working toward your graduation requirements in addition to gaining practical experience. Plus, it can end up being a helpful addition to your resume as well as an opportunity to practice your networking skills. 

4. Take advantage of career fairs.  

Each year, colleges and universities around the US host career fairs, where local and national companies offer informational sessions or recruit soon-to-be graduates. Before you get to your final year, attend a career fair—ideally in your first or second year—so you can network with recruiters and hear about the types of degrees, majors, and skills they look for during their hiring process. When you go to a career fair early on in your college career, the information you gain can influence the major you ultimately declare or the internships you pursue, and it can help you understand what the workforce may expect after graduation. 

Learn more: How to Make a Resume for Your First Job (+ Template)

Bachelor’s degree alternatives 

A bachelor’s degree offers many benefits, but if you’re unsure whether it’s the best choice for your goals and needs, there are a few other options you can explore to build upon your skill set, gain or strengthen subject knowledge, and improve your odds as a job candidate. Here are a few other options to consider as you pursue your personal and professional goals: 

Associate degree: You can earn an associate degree, also known as a two-year degree, which can lead to higher salaries than with a high school diploma alone and help prepare you for a number of technical or vocational careers. You can also apply to bachelor’s degree programs after earning your associate degree, using the time during your associate program to think through your options and which major might be best for you. Learn more about the difference between an associate degree and a bachelor’s degree.

Professional certificates: Dive into a specific subject, such as IT support, marketing, data analysis, or computer programming, and earn a professional certificate (evidence of education) without spending four years at university. Certificates generally require no prior knowledge and can be done part-time or full-time. Once you’ve earned a professional certificate, you can add it to your resume to show potential employers your additional knowledge in a given area. Browse professional certificate programs for more information. 

Certifications: Not to be confused with certificates, certifications are industry-approved programs that help you gain general or specific subject knowledge—usually in a technical or professional area, such as IT, UX design, or project management. A certification can be a helpful addition to your resume, showing recruiters the extra steps you’ve taken to gain a mastery of a work-related subject.  

Bootcamps: If you’re looking for a fast way to gain knowledge of a popular subject in a high-growth field, bootcamps may be a strong option. Depending on the bootcamp, they take a few months to complete and help you gain specialized knowledge of growing fields like software engineering or cybersecurity. For example, if you’re interested in learning a new coding language, there are many coding bootcamps to explore on Coursera.

Next steps   

Whether you decide to embark on your bachelor’s degree or pursue a different avenue to augment your learning, education is a key tool to build your subject knowledge, develop your skill set, and become a more competitive job candidate. 

Explore online bachelor’s degrees on Coursera in high-growth fields such as marketing, business administration, and computer science. Or look into the University of North Texas’ Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences, which is designed for students who have already earned some college credit

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Article sources

1. National Research Council (US) Center for Education. “Skill Demands of Knowledge Work, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK4074/.” Accessed December 30, 2021.

2. Georgetown Public Policy Institute. “Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020. https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Recovery2020.ES_.Web_.pdf.” Accessed December 30, 2021. 

3. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Projections and Worker Characteristics, https://www.bls.gov/emp/tables/occupational-projections-and-characteristics.htm.” Accessed December 30, 2021.  

4. Glassdoor. “Salary: Assistant Marketing, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/us-marketing-assistant-salary-SRCH_IL.0,2_IN1_KO3,22.htm.”  Accessed December 30, 2021.

5. Glassdoor. “Salary: Sales and Marketing Assistant, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/sales-and-marketing-assistant-salary-SRCH_KO0,29.htm.”  Accessed December 30, 2021. 

6. Glassdoor. “Salary: Financial Advisor Assistant, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/financial-advisor-assistant-salary-SRCH_KO0,27_IP2.htm.”  Accessed December 30, 2021. 

7. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Education Pays. https://www.bls.gov/emp/chart-unemployment-earnings-education.htm.” Accessed December 30, 2021 

8. U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Education and Lifetime Earnings in the United States. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4534330/.” Accessed December 30, 2021 

9. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Unemployment Rate 3.7 Percent for College Grads, 6.7 Percent for High School Grads in March 2021. https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2021/unemployment-rate-3-7-percent-for-college-grads-6-7-percent-for-high-school-grads-in-march-2021.htm.” Accessed December 30, 2021.

10. U.S. Census Bureau. “Bachelor’s Degree Attainment in the United States: 2005 to 2019. https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2021/acs/acsbr-009.pdf.” Accessed December 30, 2021.  

11. Education Data Initiative. “College Graduation Statistics [2021]: Total Graduates per Year. https://educationdata.org/number-of-college-graduates.” Accessed December 30, 2021.

12. National Center for Education Statistics. “Time to Degree. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=569.” Accessed December 30, 2021. 

13. College Board. “Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2021. https://research.collegeboard.org/pdf/trends-college-pricing-student-aid-2021.pdf.”  Accessed December 30, 2021.

14. U.S. News and World Report. “What You'll Pay for an Online Bachelor's Degree.” https://www.usnews.com/higher-education/online-education/articles/what-youll-pay-for-an-online-bachelors-degree.” Accessed December 30, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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