According to the College Board, the current average annual cost of public school is $9,410 for in-state students. It’s $23,893 for out of state. Private schools clock in at $32,405.
And every year those average college costs go up a little bit more. They’ve gone up a lot more than inflation. Just like student debt has gone up a lot more than any other kind of debt. By the time you wrap up your college career (in four years if you’re lucky), you’re looking at a total sticker price that hovers anywhere between $40,000 and $130,000—again, on average. (Of course, this is all before financial aid, and private schools are averaging nearly 50% discounts these days, but more on that in a second.)
If you look at the cost of college and think “no flippin’ way”—you’re absolutely right. There’s no flippin’ way you should have to pay it. But the good news is, you don’t have to. And that’s super awesome, because in the long run, college is almost always worth it.
Don’t believe me? Here are three important things to keep in mind when you think about the cost of college and whether it’s worth it.
1. College is almost always worth the cost, because your job prospects and earning potential increase significantly—for life
In short, earnings are consistently higher and the unemployment rate is consistently lower for people with a college degree. Research from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2015 shows that people with a bachelor’s degree typically earn 67% more than people with just a high school diploma. (Even higher for graduate and professional degrees.) Most projections put lifetime earnings between $500,000 and $1 million more over the course of their careers if you have a bachelor’s degree. Also, the unemployment rate is 2.8% amongst those with a bachelor’s degree, versus 5.4% if you only have a high school diploma. Finally, a 2010 study from Georgetown University projected that 63% of available jobs will require at least some college education by the year 2018. (This doesn’t even include the immeasurable value of everything you learn in college, like how to think critically, how to communicate, and other skills that serve you well—also for life.)
Of course, there are many great careers that don’t require a four-year college degree, like plumbing, construction, and mechanics (although they do tend to require special training). But if you’re not interested in going into those trades, statistics say you will have a harder time getting a job—and earning more money—over your lifetime if you don’t have a college education.
2. That scary sticker price? It will almost always go down with financial aid
Whether it’s need-based or merit-based aid, federal grants or institutional scholarships, or even competitive federal loans, financial aid changes everything. And you never know exactly how much a college or university will cost you until you get their financial aid package—which you only get if you apply.
There are many other ways to bring the cost of college down too: Earn cheaper credits at one school and transfer. Graduate early by doubling down on your class schedule. And find schools that will offer a more competitive financial aid package, which brings me to my last point...
3. With a thorough college search, you can almost always find the right-fit/right-cost college
These are schools where you’re a competitive applicant and you know you'll be happy to attend. All it takes is a solid college search to find them. Because when the fit is right, the cost and financial aid tends to be right too.
I think it’s irresponsible to encourage students not to pursue some form of higher education (*cough* Peter Thiel *cough*). It’s true that college isn’t for everyone—and that’s okay. But when people point to high profile college dropouts as evidence that college isn't necessay...SMH. The thing is, statistically, you’re much, much better off going to college. The success of people like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates is as much about luck as it is talent. They are unequivocally the exception, not the rule.
However, this is not to say you should go to college for the sake of going to college. It is not a decision to make lightly. But instead of saying, “Let’s change the system by not going to college—that’ll show ’em!” I say go to the best college for you, the one you can afford, and who cares if it’s a fancy, famous school or not. To be clear, I’m not advocating going to a college where students don’t graduate or where the programs aren’t accredited. There are some truly bad schools out there—even scam schools—and those aren’t worth it. Ever. And I’m not saying take out tons of student loans to make tuition ends meet either.
I’m saying have an open mind and do the work to find the right college for you, because it’s worth it in the long run. Just because you haven’t heard of a college or they don’t have a single-digit admission rate doesn’t mean they’re not a good school or worth your time and tuition. Instead look at other factors to determine if a college is worth it: Do students graduate in four years? Do they stick around after freshman year? Do alumni get jobs in their fields? Does the school have a good reputation amongst academics and employers? These questions are all part of a legit college search—a long, tough process that is absolutely key to finding the college that’s right for you and worth the cost.
I’d argue the vast majority of colleges are places where any student—especially students with the drive and desire to learn and grow—can graduate with the skills and experiences necessary to have an awesome career and life. The keys to life-long success aren’t specific to any one college; they’re specific to you. Your dedication, your grit, and your determination to do well.
Also try to remember the long game of a college education: to become someone who can communicate well, work with others, solve problems, evaluate different viewpoints, think critically and analytically. Someone who knows how to learn, among other key skills. You can learn these things at many—if not most—colleges and universities.
It’s easy to overspend on your college education, like by taking out loans and investing more money than you should on a degree that doesn’t serve you well. But you can avoid those pitfalls by being smart about your college decisions. So you can get a meaningful education at an affordable price. And that will always be worth it.