For decades, the United States has framed college as the essential next step after high school. Yet for many, college isn’t the right fit, for several reasons. For some, college is too expensive. For others, a degree simply won’t get them where they want to go. Especially with the push to virtual schooling, questions about the value of a college education are louder than ever.
In fact, COVID-19 has changed the desirability of secondary education. The Los Angeles Times reports that 2020 saw far fewer college applications. In fact, the enrollment of recent high school graduates was down 22% last year.
So is college still “essential” for success? The answer truly is, it depends. There are several factors, beyond cost, that go into a decision like college education. However, we don’t think it’s for everyone.
So, if you’re debating going to college, or you’re a parent with high schoolers, here are the questions we recommend asking and analyzing to determine if you should go to college.
Do you need to go to college?
Charlie Kirk, of Turning Point USA, travels to different college campuses giving lectures. He says, “You have an entire generation of people borrowing money they don’t have to study things that don’t matter to find jobs that don’t exist. I sincerely believe [college] can be a worthwhile pursuit under the right circumstances…If you want to be a doctor or an architect, for example, it’s obviously a necessity.”
This assumption that college is necessary stems from the flawed analysis that degree-earning adults make more money. While for many career paths this is true, those data points tend to skew the data of low-income careers. A degree does not guarantee employment, nor does it guarantee you’ll make a lot of money. In fact, a Georgetown University study revealed that there are 30 million jobs that pay over $55,000 annually.
In addition, Andrew Yang has pointed out that the assumption of college actually prevents many high school graduates from attending a vocational school. This type of training points to jobs with high demand—dental hygienists, electricians, and HVAC techs all require vocational training.
Do you need to go to college now?
For you or your children, college may be the right path. However, there’s a misunderstanding that one must go directly from high school to university. This can be wasteful for those who aren’t yet sure what they want to do, or feel as though they need time to figure themselves out.
Data shows that on average, only 58% of students who enrolled in 2012 finished their degrees within six years, the rest taking longer, if at all. For those who didn’t graduate, that’s an expensive way to figure out what you want from your education.
Gap years can be a productive and inexpensive way to travel, gain experience, and even find work. All of which can contribute to greater clarity of purpose. And, you can take more than one gap year.
How much does college cost?
With education costs, looks can be deceiving. For starters, tuition costs don’t reflect room & board, dining, books, or even parking fees. Then, consider that pricing will change from year to year—often upwards.
Finally, there’s opportunity cost, which most calculations neglect. If you graduate with $100,000 of debt, how will that impact your ability to save, invest, and buy a home?
If parents are footing the bill, this can affect retirement and savings portfolios, often significantly. That’s because not only are the parent’s giving up the $100,000 in the present. They’re also giving up the compounding growth that money would have earned in every year after that.
Weigh these costs carefully as you strategize how to pay for college, including parents considering their own needs in the present and future. A little creativity can go a long way and make the tuition situation much more manageable for all. Scholarships, grants, and a side gig can help offset costs and show dedication.
What leads to well-paying work?
When applying for college, it’s important to balance what interests you, what pays well, and what requires a degree. While doing something that is of interest is most important for some, a high salary is at the top of the list for others. And as mentioned earlier, some career paths don’t actually require a degree and still pay well.
Even when a certain career requires a degree, where you get your degree from is not as important as you may be led to believe. The position and pay that you want often have more to do with:
- Work ethic
- Your network
- A willingness to learn and grow
- And perseverance when applying for jobs
Are there other opportunities?
As we’ve said before, college is not the only path that leads to success. A fulfilling career is achievable through infinite means, so long as you try.
Alternatives to college could include:
Nano-degrees. Programs like Udemy offer short, 6-month programs to teach you in-demand skills like programming, business analytics, data engineering, and more.
Trade school. There’s a need or more vocational training, as only 6% of high school graduates pursue a trade, compared to Europe’s nearly 50%. Find Something New has a comprehensive list of opportunities for vocational training.
Entrepreneurship. Creating your own business can be extremely fulfilling and offer a lot of flexibility. The Thiel Fellowship, or programs like small business grants, are designed for budding entrepreneurs to develop their ideas and launch businesses.
Many of the world’s wealthiest entrepreneurs are without a college degree: Bill Gates, John Rockefeller, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and more. People can, and do, succeed regardless of their background.
So, should you go to college? Make the most of your decision.
Ultimately, we cannot decide for you or your children. While college isn’t a fit for everyone, it’s a worthwhile choice for many. The most important thing, in our opinion, is to adopt the mindset of a lifelong learner. Whether or not you attend college, seek knowledge—through books, Ted Talks, conferences, courses, and apprenticeships. Endeavor to learn from your experiences.
A book that can get you started on your lifelong education is Michael Ellsberg’s The Education of Millionaires. Another worthwhile resource is Conor Boyak’s Passion-Driven Education. It’s full of ideas to foster a growth mindset outside of the classroom.
Our Prosperity Economics Advisor network is comprised of growth-minded advisors, who are well-versed in opportunity costs and financial strategies. If you’re interested in finding the right match, contact us today.