Is College Worth It?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Learn more about the benefits and tradeoffs associated with attending college, so you can determine whether it's the best choice for you.

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Pursuing higher education can be a worthwhile endeavor for many reasons. At the most foundational level, learning can broaden your perspective and help you develop new or additional knowledge. 

Beyond that, graduating with a bachelor’s degree is a valuable credential. Although an increasing number of employers and industries do not expect entry-level employees to have a degree, it can become important as you advance in your career. College can also be a time to explore who you are, grow in notable ways, build your network, and participate in various organizations and activities.  

Whether college is worth it largely depends on your goals, resources, and whether the benefits outweigh the potential costs. In this article, we’ll review key facts about attending college, the benefits of higher education, factors that can impact whether college is worth it, and alternative paths to hone your education.   

Attending college: Time and cost

Earning your bachelor’s degree means attending a four-year institution, though many students now take five to six years to finish. The pace at which you finish college most often depends on whether you can attend part-time or full-time and the number of credits your major requires.   

The cost of college is based on the type of school you attend. The figures below list the annual average cost of tuition and fees but do not consider additional costs like room and board, books, and other materials [1]: 

  • Public in-state tuition: $10,740 

  • Public out-of-state tuition: $27,560

  • Private tuition: $38,070 

Learn more: How to Get a Bachelor’s Degree

The benefits of attending college 

The proportion of jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree has declined in recent years. While 51 percent of jobs listed online required a bachelor’s in 2017, only 44 percent required it in 2021 [2]. A degree still tends to be the primary outcome of attending college. However, there are many other benefits to consider.  

Social mobility 

College can lead to greater social mobility, or the ability to move between social strata, such as between the lower and middle classes. Generally, social mobility will be most effective when your cost of attending college remains low and you find a good-paying job after graduation. (You can find lists of colleges ranked by this metric published annually.) 

Keep in mind that even if you earn an average entry-level salary, you may be able to make more over your working life with a degree. Over their lifetime, men with bachelor’s degrees earn more than $900,000 on average, and women with bachelor’s degrees earn more than $630,000 on average compared to high school graduates, according to the Social Security Administration [3].

Earnings and stability 

A bachelor’s degree has been shown to lead to higher earnings and lower unemployment rates. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) calculates the median weekly earnings for bachelor’s degree holders at $1,334 (compared to $809 for high school graduates) [4]. And the unemployment rate for bachelor’s degree holders is 3.5 percent compared to 6.2 percent for high school graduates [4].

Time to explore interests

Some students begin college knowing what they want to study, while for others, it’s a chance to explore their interests, values, and passions by taking a range of classes. A bachelor’s degree program typically requires you to take most of your core liberal arts courses and some electives before declaring your major. That time is an opportunity to take classes in subjects both new and familiar to better understand what you enjoy learning and doing.  

Skills development 

Throughout your time at college, you will develop workplace skills (sometimes called “soft skills”) and interpersonal skills that companies seek in job candidates. Many majors will also encourage you to develop important technical skills you can showcase as part of your overall skill set.   

Skills you can learn or refine in college: 

  • Time management

  • Communication

  • Teamwork

  • Research

  • Critical thinking

  • Problem-solving

  • Organization

  • Digital literacy

  • Project management

Socialize and network 

Taking advantage of student groups, clubs, and organizations at college can be beneficial. Not only can you build valuable social skills through participation, but you can also refine other useful skills, such as teamwork and leadership. Organizations can also be an excellent opportunity to build your professional network.  

Many online colleges also offer peer interaction and peer groups to foster your sense of connection to your school and classmates and develop valuable skills.  

Resources

Most schools have educational and professionalization resources designed to help you during college and when you're preparing you to enter the workforce. These include student advising, libraries, tutoring, career centers, and internship placement, among others, and are worth using. 

Learn more: Is a Bachelor's Degree Worth It?

Factors that can impact the worth of college

With all of the many benefits of a degree, certain components can impact the worth of your college education. As you think about your goals and whether you can achieve them by attending college (or not), it’s helpful to consider the factors below: 

Student debt

College can be expensive, leading many students to take out loans to cover the cost of their education. As of 2021, 65 percent of bachelor’s degree students from public institutions in the United States took out student loans to pay for school, and the average graduate owed $28,800 [5]. 

Student loans are just one option among many. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will determine what kind of financial assistance you qualify for (grants, work-study, loans). Still, it may be helpful to apply for additional scholarships to offset the cost of attendance, or consider working a part-time college job to lower the overall amount you owe. 

The way you earn your degree can also impact cost. Learning online tends to cost less than learning in person. If you’re currently working full-time, you may want to investigate whether your employer offers programs to cover a portion of your education. 

Learn more: Jobs to Pay for College 

Time to completion

The time it takes to earn your degree often means time away from the full-time workforce. Now that it takes many undergraduates closer to five or six years to graduate, that can be a sizable consideration. 

You can reduce the time to completion by taking a full course load each semester and taking advantage of “extra” semesters, like summer, to move through your coursework more quickly. Thirty-three percent of bachelor’s degree students change their major, which can also add time to college [6]. 

Many majors encourage you to take advantage of paid internships to gain professional experience alongside your education. It might be worth working part-time to build your experience while adding a revenue stream to help pay for college.   

The value of a bachelor’s degree

Nearly 40 percent of adults hold a bachelor’s degree, which might seem to dilute its power [7]. As more and more people earn that degree, you may need more education to stand out as a job candidate. 

However, a bachelor’s degree is still a valued credential among employers. Even though some companies may not require applicants to hold a college degree for entry-level roles, it may become increasingly important as you apply for advanced roles that involve management or leadership.  

Determining whether college is right for you 

College may be a valuable choice, but ultimately only you can determine whether you will achieve what you want—and need—by attending it. As you weigh the benefits against the potential costs, use the items below to help you think through your decision:  

Long-term goals 

Your long-term goals can help you understand whether attending college is the right choice for you. Think about your goals over three separate outcomes: career, earnings, and lifestyle. 

  • Career: What kind of career do you want to pursue? Do you need a college education to get started? Will you need a college education as you move along? 

  • Earning: What kind of salary would you like to earn eventually? What industries or roles will help you achieve that goal? Do they require a college education, either now or later? 

  • Lifestyle: What kind of life do you envision for yourself? Is flexibility important? How about work-life balance? How might education enable you to achieve the type of role you want? 

Financial resources 

Knowing your financial resources can also be a valuable way to determine whether college is worth it. How much will you be responsible for on an annual basis? What steps can you take (submitting your FAFSA, applying for scholarships, working part-time) to manage those costs? 

If you decide to take out loans, knowing what you could earn for an entry-level role in your field—and how that might increase throughout your career—can help you figure out how long it might take to pay them off.

Time commitment 

College is a commitment, whether you attend part-time or full-time. Think about how much time you have to dedicate to your studies. Do you have at least four years, but possibly longer, to earn your degree? If you’re interested in earning your degree faster, are you able to commit more time? 

Bachelor’s degree alternatives 

Attending a four-year college may not be the best choice for you at the current moment. In that case, there are other educational avenues worth considering. 

  • Associate degrees: Earn your two-year associate degree at a community college, which could be free or low cost for qualifying local residents. The credential also shows positive earnings and lower unemployment compared to high school graduates. Many four-year schools accept transfer students who eventually wish to keep going and earn their bachelor’s degree [3]. 

  • Professional certificates: Designed to help you learn about a type of work (like digital marketing or data science) and develop job-ready skills, a certificate program can be an excellent—and faster—way to help you enter the workforce or advance your career. You can list the professional certificate you earn on your resume, showing potential employers what you’ve done to prepare yourself for your career. 

  • Trade schools: Geared toward students who want to learn about a specific type of trade or vocational work (like welding, HVAC tech, or medical coding), trade schools offer important training, and some even provide job placement. 

  • Bootcamps: If you’re interested in a tech career, a bootcamp can be an excellent way to learn specific job skills fast. You can learn UX design, coding, data science, and more.   

Learn more: 10 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get with an Associate Degree

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Next steps

A college education is an excellent way to build your subject knowledge, strengthen your skill set, and become a more competitive job candidate. Plus, it’s a significant personal accomplishment. 

Learn more about online bachelor’s degrees available from leading universities on Coursera. If you've already earned college credit and are looking to finish your degree, learn more about the University of North Texas’ Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences.  

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Article sources

1. College Board. “Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid in 2021, https://research.collegeboard.org/media/pdf/trends-college-pricing-student-aid-2021.pdf.” Accessed July 20, 2022. 

2. New York Times. "A 4-Year Degree Isn’t Quite the Job Requirement It Used to Be, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/08/business/hiring-without-college-degree.html.” Accessed July 27, 2022.

3. Social Security Administration. “Education and Lifetime Earnings, https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/research-summaries/education-earnings.html.” Accessed July 20, 2022. 

4. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Education Pays, https://www.bls.gov/emp/chart-unemployment-earnings-education.htm.” Accessed July 21, 2022. 

5. Education Data Initiative. “Average Student Loan Debt for a Bachelor’s Degree, https://educationdata.org/average-debt-for-a-bachelors-degree.” Accessed July 21, 2022. 

6. US Department of Education. “Beginning College Students Who Change Their Major, https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2018/2018434.pdf.” Accessed July 21, 2022. 

7. Pew Research Center. “10 Facts About Today’s College Graduates, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/04/12/10-facts-about-todays-college-graduates/.” Accessed July 21, 2022. 

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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