Recently, I was shocked to discover that I attended one of the top 10 most expensive universities in the world: George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Woo hoo! I still remember the shock on my parents’ faces when they opened up my first semester invoice from GWU. The latest tuition update on this school shows its graduate tuition at a whopping $1,340 per semester hour. Yes!

Is your college degree worth the time and money you invest in it? Furthermore, is that degree worth the student loan debt that you may incur in order to graduate on time? A recent survey by U.K.’s The Guardian found that over half of bachelor degree holders under the age of 25 were jobless or underemployed. More college grads were employed in the food service industry (e.g., McDonalds) than in their chosen fields of study like science, mathematics or engineering.

Then there’s the issue of student debt. A recent report by Press-Telegram states how 40% of graduates carry an average of $22,000 in student loan debt by the time they toss their caps in the air. Middle class students carry the highest debt load – $28,000 on average – since need-based scholarships are typically awarded to families earning under $40,000/year. Given these dismal statistics, is a college degree still a worthwhile investment or just a time-honored scam?

The statistics speak for themselves

A college undergraduate education will still provide you with at least an extra $400,000 over the course of 30 years according to Bloomberg Businessweek. And that’s the bare minimum. If you have the luxury (and brains) of attending an elite school like M.I.T., your expected additional earnings are $1.7 million over the same time period. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows high school graduates earning a median salary of $638 per week versus $1,053 for those with a bachelor’s degree versus $1,551 for those with a doctoral degree. Furthermore, unemployment is much lower for those with higher degrees versus those with only a high school diploma; conversely, those with no high school diploma have an unemployment rate of over 14%.

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It’s not just the knowledge that you pick up in college that helps you get hired. Important connections are made while you hang out with your classmates -classmates who later go on to work at or even start corporations. Participating in clubs, sororities or fraternities helps you later on when you’re trying to build a network. It’s no accident that the professional networking site LinkedIn now has over 175 million members worldwide; the value of making connections with other people in your field cannot be overemphasized. And then there are the additional skills that you gain while at college (and no, I’m not talking about your keg stand accomplishments): cultural exchange programs, internships and honors programs can result in you learning new languages, gaining expertise in a niche field, or even making headway on an invention.

Given the many advantages of a college education, how can you get your degree without going into debt or living in your parents’ basement for the next 10-20 years? Here are some time-tested ideas:

Choose your major with care

The college afterlife is not so rosy for everyone who graduates. Certain college majors have a harder time finding employment than others: over 10% of anthropology, fine arts, philosophy/religious studies, film, photography, graphic design, information systems and history graduates are unemployed. Architecture majors rank the worst, with almost 14% of graduates being jobless, according to a study published by Georgetown University.

Obviously, finding employment as a liberal arts major takes significantly more skill and imagination than finding employment as a nursing or chemistry major. Some students luck out; I know an English major who brings home over $100K per year via technical writing at a company here in town. However, a good majority of these affectionately termed “underwater basket weaving” graduates eek out their existences working as burger flippers, administrative assistants or gas station attendants. Many decide to add onto their student loan debt by attending graduate school.

Most online and brick-and-mortar colleges never discuss the possibility of unemployment – or employment – with their student body. The glossy brochures produced by many humanities departments portray students happily painting or sculpting, not standing in line at the downtown unemployment office. However, students are also partly to blame; the career services that most colleges and universities offer within their respective departments are often underutilized. I speak from personal experience; at both my undergrad and graduate schools, I never once darkened the doorway of a career center. My college friends never spoke about getting career advice from an on-capus office.

Consider obtaining an online degree

The average cost of room and board at a college or university is $7,000 according to The National Center for Education Statistics. Other surveys report a higher average room and board cost of $9,047. Students have traditionally found ways around these costs by living at home or off campus. With the recent rise of online colleges, however, another option has opened up: attending classes from the comfort of your own home computer.

The advantages of an online education are many, including the ability to attend any school regardless of your geographic location, working while you attend school, and taking courses at your own pace. Many online schools, such as the University of Phoenix, collaborate with employers looking to pay for their employees’ education. Because many of the students attending online institutions have been in the workforce for years or even decades, they are more likely to receive relevant career advice from the college or university as part of its standard curriculum.

Furthermore, most online colleges and universities are just plain cheaper than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. Let’s face it: when a school isn’t pumping money into buildings, libraries, landscaping, student activities and athletic departments, it’s also less likely to charge thousands of dollars for a class. Reduced overhead also helps ensure that a particular department doesn’t close down on you just as you’re about to graduate from it.

Don’t obtain a graduate degree unless it’s absolutely required

Students who are fresh out of undergrad study often find it difficult to find a job right away. This is also the time when student loan repayment notices start showing up in mailboxes. Many students, not knowing what else to do, embark upon grad school with the idea that a higher degree will make them more desirable to employers. Going back to school also defers student loan repayment. However, just because you couldn’t find a job with your Bachelor of Arts degree in Religious Studies does not mean things will get easier once you earn a master’s or doctorate in the same field. At best, you’ll end up wasting several years taking tests and writing papers while your friends are gaining real world experience and seniority through their jobs. At worst, you’ll end up with even more student loan debt and trying to find entry-level positions in your late 20’s or early 30’s with your future boss being at least 5-10 years your junior.

There are only two good reasons to get any degree beyond the standard bachelor’s:

  1. Your field/boss demands it. For example, a college professor is required to have at least a master’s degree in his/her field of expertise. Laboratory chiefs typically hold doctorate degrees. Business professionals are considered more employable if they earn an MBA.
  2. Your company wants you to get a higher degree- and will pay for it. Some employers want their employees to be savvy about the latest technology or developments in their field. To this end, they invest in their employees’ education.

Get out into the working world first

Before you dedicate four or more years of your life and thousands of dollars to a given educational pursuit, try working in your chosen field first. In some cases, this will involve getting hired on as an unpaid intern. In other cases, you’ll end up becoming an assistant to the main honcho whose job you want. Still, any exposure to your future career is better than none and it also helps you decide if this is the right path for you. You also gain a better feel for tangibles such as pay rate, ease of promotion, workplace issues and politics, race/gender/marital status discrimination (yes, it’s still out there), and geographic mobility. At the very least, you start to appreciate the value of a buck and how employers who respect you should pay a living wage.

The Bottom Line

Your life post-graduation will (hopefully) be a long one and you’ll need to earn a decent living if you ever hope to acquire a house, car or family. Money is also required to fund vacations, retirements and quality health care. Thus, any collegiate program of study that does not address its own money-making potential is a waste of your time. After all, colleges or universities are, in the end, businesses that ask you to invest your time and money on their products. Any business should understand that investors are looking to make a reasonable ROI, or return on investment, for their efforts. Otherwise, investors would simply write off their losses as a charitable donation. And the last time I checked, a college or university education was not free, nor was paying my tuition bill considered donating to charity.

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Join the Discussion

  • cham

    I learned a lot from reading this post. It explains in details if further education is needed or not. I also agree that having a high education is a lot better than nothing having one at all. However, some post-graduate courses may not be necessary.

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