The Pros and Cons of a College Degree

The Pros and Cons of a College Degree

The last few generations of Americans have been indoctrinated with the idea that a college degree is an absolute must-have in today’s economy. While this is largely true, the answer to “To have a college degree or not to have a college degree, that is the question”, is not so black-and-white as it may first seem. There are some legitimate reasons why delaying or even foregoing a college degree may be the best choice for certain individuals. Here’s a closer look at the pros and cons to getting a college degree.

The Pros and Cons of a College Degree 1

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Pros of a College Degree

The most obvious pro of a college degree is money. Over their lifetime, a college graduate can expect to earn about 60% more money than those with only a high school degree. While some jobs do not require a college degree to start, such as many law enforcement jobs, oftentimes a college degree is required to advance within the field.

Occasionally there are good paying jobs that can be landed without a college degree, it’s usually the case that when two individuals occupy the same position, one with a degree and one without, the one with the degree usually earns more money.

Interestingly enough, there is also a correlation between having a college degree and an individual’s relative level of happiness. This correlation was shown in 2005, when a survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that 42% of people with a college degree said they were “very happy”, whereas only 30% of people without a degree said the same.

Cons of a College Degree

Just because a college degree comes with many benefits doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone, or right for everyone right away. Inevitably, there are those college grads who lament the degree that they earned, wishing they had delayed college for a few years until they knew what they really wanted to do. For these individuals, entering the workforce or the military out of high school would have been a good way to increase their maturity level before spending the time (and their parents’ money) earning a degree they didn’t really want.

There are also many educational alternatives available to standard, four-year university degrees. A “degree”, in other words, doesn’t necessarily mean attending a traditional college or university. Many careers, such as the aforementioned law enforcement officers, nursing assistants, dental assistants, emergency medical technicians, plumbers, and electricians, can gain the training or certification they need through their job, a local union, or vocational school without getting a college degree. As an individual progresses in a career such as this, they can always choose to go back to school later for an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

How Do You Define Success?

Those who say, “You must have a college degree to be successful in today’s workforce” are only partially right. In the sense that someone with a college degree will earn more money than someone without one, they are usually (but not always) correct. Many entrepreneurs start home-based businesses and years later find themselves earning far more as a business owner than they could have “using” their college degree. Furthermore, one person’s idea of a successful career might be another person’s idea of Chinese water torture. Do you really want to earn a college degree only to find out that you hate your job?

Before you decide whether or not to pursue a college degree, first define what “success” means to you. Do you want to use your career to get rich, or is excitement more important to you? Would you be happy with a desk job, or would you rather be working outside? Do you want to work with your hands, or with your mind? The answers to these questions will define what career path you take and whether a college degree is right for you now, later, or never.

11 thoughts on “The Pros and Cons of a College Degree”

  1. I think it is necessary to continue education after high school. It doesn’t have to be a four year school, it could be community college, trade school, or a two year program. But if you want to get ahead in any industry you need more than a high school diploma.

  2. @Jenna: Correction. Learning must continue after high school.

    Those institutions are formalized paths for particular types of learning. School isn’t necessarily the best choice for learning some skills. Admittedly, they aren’t the majority, but some individuals may be motivated enough to pursue their own studies apart from those programs.

    In many cases, the issue isn’t the person’s “knowledge, skills and abilities” that make them hire-able or promote-able. More often, the legitimacy of a degree is what is required.

    Higher education is expensive and should be looked at as an investment. Until the benefits outweigh the costs, an individual should probably wait. What those costs (money, time, possibility of failure due to immaturity) or benefits (bona fides, maturity, technical skill) are is really up to the particular person.

  3. The benefits of a college education extend far beyond money and help explain the data referenced in the post that people with a college degree report higher levels of happiness than people without a degree. A couple examples:

    Personal Relationships. College is an excellent place to build lifelong friendships.

    Living Independently. For most college students, attending college is the first opportunity they have to live away from their parents, often in a different city or state, and to do so with a support system built around them.

    Learning for Learning’s Sake. Many, probably most, of the classes people attend at college have little professional relevance, but they expand people’s minds in ways that make them more intelligent and knowledgeable about the world we live in.

    More Satisfying Career. Not only do jobs requiring a college degree pay more, they tend to be more stimulating and less repetitive. This promotes greater job satisfaction over the course of people’s lives.

    It’s easy to focus just on the monetary benefits of college when doing a cost/benefit analysis, but that analysis ignores these other benefits of college which are completely unquantifiable and might discourage people from attending college who really would benefit from it.

  4. While I have a college degree, I do not think it is a must to be successful. It does open doors that may otherwise be closed for those jobs that the minimum requirement is a college degree. However, there are many successful people out there who do not have a college degree and have done quite well given their personal drive, creativity and determination to achieve what many define to be SUCCESS. Michael Dell, Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey (later received hers) are just a few examples.

  5. KP, I agree – I have a 4 year degree that I am convinced helped me in various ways, but it is absolutely not a requirement to success. I will take someone who is full of the character traits you mentioned, over someone with just a degree any day…

  6. Of course, there are benefits and drawbacks to a college degree that go beyond the financial ones. Like the benefits of learning social skills, becoming mature, learning to live on your own, the lifelong “door opener” effect of a college degree even if you don’t get a job in your field of study. And the drawback of trying to decide on a career path before you’ve done any work in that field.

  7. Attending college taught me a lot more about life than anything. It was where I first learned the value of money and how to balance going to class and holding down a part-time job at the same time. Basically, it made me grow up and become more responsible.

    Ultimately, I think that college has more pros than cons, but I have also seen many very successful people who have never attended a day of college.

  8. We have four generations of college graduates in our family. My mother graduated with a teaching degree in the 1930’s and later earned a Masters, my spouse and I earned Bachelor degree’s in the 1970’s, our sons earned Bachelor degrees in the 1990’s and now are saving up to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on their children’s college expenses.

    Yes, college can be a life enhancing experience. Definitely, college degrees can open doors to jobs.

    But, considering that many (including myself and one of my sons) go back to get different accreditation and training after graduation so that they can enter the workforce, and considering the high cost of education, I believe it is imperative that each potential student evaluate their need and desire for the sheepskin against the cost to themselves and their families. As noted in the other comments, there are many ways to pursue life-long learning, which is really what we all need to do. As my Dad used to say “You go to school to learn how to learn”.

    With the advent of more and more private and trade related universities and schools, I would hope to see the traditional public colleges and universities becoming more competitive in price in the future.

    My college expenses were $4000 at a state university. My children’s college expenses were $40,000 at a state university and I understand that 20 years from now, the expectation is that a state university degree will cost in the $200,000 range. That is a pretty big inflation level from generation to generation!

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