When I was ready to go to college I had a big decision to make. I live in a city with a major university and that was the immediate dream choice. However, the price tag at the time was $16,000 a year (this was in 1977) at a time when, in many households, if they were lucky the top breadwinner was making $15,000 a year. My dad was a recent retiree from the military and just starting a new job; it didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that was a stupid goal and unfair to even consider accepting. Thus, I went to a state university, where tuition at the time was around $1,600 a year (you read that right).

Walking up the slight grade to Pattee Library along the Allen Street Mall in early June, 2015.
Penn State via Compfight

These days, the rates for private universities can be extreme, and state universities, although still fairly affordable for state residents, can be pretty high for out of state visitors. The large local university in my area, if you only took 12 credit hours a semester, comes to around $41,000+. The state university closest to where I live comes in around $9,600 a year for residents, and $19,200 for out of state residents.

Even with the possibility of telecommuting (online classes) and not having to follow all the former rules about freshmen having to live on campus, costs can feel prohibitive, especially if you have to work and pay bills while trying to get a degree. All of this begs this question; is a college degree worth the debt?

It depends; don’t you just hate that answer?

Just like everything else in this world, there’s no cut and dry answer for everything. For instance, if you want to be a lawyer or physician, first off you don’t have a choice, and second, if you’re even just passable as a lawyer or physician you could be earning $100,000 a year pretty easily within a few years of graduating. The long term benefits for each can outweigh the costs… depending on specialty also.

So, if you’re a lawyer or physician, a debt of around $500,000 might not only be overcome with less difficulty (not saying it’s easy because, regardless of income, both vocations need to carry liability insurance, which can be pretty steep, but in some cases the employers will help pay off some of the debt), if you’re in it for the long haul you have the chance to be pretty well off.

What about for everyone else? Once again, it depends on what you’re shooting for. The average pay for engineers out of college is around $63,000 a year, and the rate of pay might be determined on where you got your education from. The overall average is around $45,000, which still isn’t bad, but it’s financially better if you went to a less expensive college.

However, average means just that, so if some are making $65,000, then some are making around $25,000, if that. Even in today’s world there are a lot of women who go to college and, instead of opting for a career decide to be stay at home mothers… who still have to pay off college loans. It might not have been financially smart to spend all that money for a degree that, no matter what it is, becomes meaningless, but to be fair those women probably didn’t go to college knowing they weren’t going to aim for employment at some point.

That’s ultimately the problem with trying to answer this type of question. There are people who don’t go to college, end up working at a place where they show proficiency, but because of a lack of a degree, or the right degree, will never be considered for advancement. There are also people who got a college degree in one field but end up working in a different field, and sometimes just having a degree allows them to be promotable, even if it’s in a totally different area.

We also can’t deny the fact that there are some high school graduates who find vocational schools to go to that can not only make pretty good money but, with proper business processes, could end up becoming millionaires. In the book The Millionaire Next Dooricon by Thomas J. Stanley, he highlights two professions where college degrees haven’t been needed for many of the people involved have become millionaires, those being plumbers and, oddly enough, auctioneers.

We also can’t deny the fact that there are so many more people who don’t go to college, that barely got out of high school and would have never considered it, that earn less than $10 an hour (although some states are passing laws these days trying to raise minimum wage), as well as those who are lucky enough to work in a town where manufacturing jobs are still plentiful and, because of unions, pays a pretty nice wage without the education. The work might not be stimulating but not everyone looks for that in a job.

Overall, families need to start thinking about college prospects when students are in their sophomore year of high school. The thoughts should include the area of study, parent’s finances (which many parents are reluctant to discuss but it needs to be a crucial part of the discussion), and the distance and costs of the universities being considered. Not all software programmers need to go to a top college to be proficient in what they do (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates), and not all millionaire businessmen have gone to college (Richard Branson), so it’s possible that one can do well without college.

If you’re on a different type of career track, getting a degree should probably be in your future. But, for the most part, the most expensive universities won’t give you more juice towards a great career than a state university. Your debt will be lower and your experience will be just as good.

At least it’s something to consider.

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