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Your Take: Is a College Degree Worth It?

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A topic that came up often at the start of the recession was the value of a college degree. As the cost of college skyrockets, people are wondering if it really makes sense to put off earning power for four years and pursue higher education. It makes for a prime candidate for a Your Take! 🙂

One of the more recent and better articulated reasons in favor of a college degree comes from our friend Chris Farrell (I reviewed his book New Frugality and he’s a regular on Marketplace Money), writing for Bloomberg BusinessWeek (a great publication with iPad support, kudos!). A good counter argument comes from a more dated article, back in late 2009, but the arguments presented in the Time Business article are also compelling. I think the answer will depend on your particular situation, what degree and at what cost, but neither side is definitively “right.”

I personally think the right college degree is like a defensible moat. Why are lawyers so highly paid? Because they have a moat. You need to pass the bar, which usually means you need to go to law school, and that usually means you need money or access to loans. Why are the list of the highest paid jobs mostly engineers? You will usually need a degree, it’s hard to learn that stuff on your own, and college is a pre-requisite. College degrees provide a moat for those who can get one, protecting them against competition from people who haven’t earned the degrees or learned those skills.

If you work in retail, you are competing with almost everyone for your job. That doesn’t mean you are any less valuable, it just means that you face a lot more competition. A high school graduate will not compete with a law school graduate for a clerkship, the law school graduate competes with a much smaller pool of candidates. Your local Starbucks barrista competes for his or her job with almost every other person looking for a job – that’s a lot of people.

Do you think college degrees are worth it?

{ 48 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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48 Responses to “Your Take: Is a College Degree Worth It?”

  1. DIY Investor says:

    I think it depends on the person. Some students are like a fish in the desert as they sit in the classroom. They hate to read or even contemplate ideas. They much prefer working with their hands and solving specific problems.
    It saddens me to see young people saddled with enormous debt taking their batchelors degree into a field that pays $30,000/year or, worse, into the unemployment line.
    I teach at the community college and I see many “students” who are miserable and in the classroom because it is what society tells them they are supposed to do.

    • Nick says:

      You teach at a community college and you don’t know how to spell “bachelor”? Worse still, you didn’t think anything was wrong when you saw a red squiggly line underneath the word?

      Yes, your students are overpaying for their education.

  2. saladdin says:

    My situation is without my business degree I would be in a factory right now making $10 an hour instead of $21. I am not special or a member of mensa. At best I am average. I will never go above “middle” management and am perfectly ok with that.

    My gf worked in a deli making $8 until she graduated in May with her degree in social work. She got her first job last week making $30 an hour.

    It’s knowing your area and what degree to get coupled with amount of debt you leave school with.

    People can argue all they want about degrees. You will have those that say “I make 60K without one” or “I started my own business and am smarter then the Harvard Grad I hired.” Fine. But for the other 98% of us that are average, the right degree is the difference between $10 an hour and $20.

  3. tom says:

    Completely worth it.

    BUT… don’t be an idiot about it. Don’t go to Harvard to become a social worker then go back to grad school at Yale. You have to have at least some common sense when choosing a school and major.

    It’s not worth it, when you start to make stupid decisions.

    • LibrariNerd says:

      Agreed. I went to one of the cheapest public universities around for undergrad because I got a full scholarship – and it was great. Then I got into another public university for my professional degree (which I paid for myself) and only 3 years later I was debt-free thanks to the job I landed. Your education is what you make of it, to a large extent.

    • ziglet19 says:

      Yes, agreed again.

      I know someone who’s just starting college this year and chose a private school that costs over 30k a year! It’s one thing to get s specialized degree that you can make good money with, but for the average Liberal Arts or History degree, why not get it at a public school for a third of the cost?

      • lostAnnfound says:

        That person going to a private school may be paying less than going to a public school depending on what kind of financial aid package he/she got.

        • Courtney says:

          Agreed, everyone always talks about the ‘sticker price’ of education but what you really need to look at is the average indebtedness of graduates. My private college education “cost” close to $100K over four years but between scholarships, grants, a few small loans and some hard work I graduated with less than $9K in debt. I would have ended up with MORE debt going to the public schools I got into, because the scholarship offers were significantly smaller.

    • Paige says:

      Actually Harvard, Yale and Princeton have the most need-based scholarships so they are the better choice, if you can get in, for people who can’t afford state universities because their parents make “too much” money to qualify for need based aid under Federal student aid guidelines but not enough to pay for even state universities. Or if you have parents who don’t want to pay for you to go to college but you’re too young to not have to put their income on your financial aid forms (which would be 24 and under).

  4. Anonymous says:

    It’s worth it if you don’t add on the debt. If your local state college offers you a scholarship and you know you can get better grades there and just as good an education, go there instead of going to a mid-tier school where you will be paying 5x as much and would possibly be harder to make good grades (I took courses at local state colleges and they were just as good, much cheaper, and much easier to get bettter grades). When jobs and internships compare the two candidates they won’t care where you went (unless it’s ivy league which usually has major grade inflation anyway). They want to see the grades. I chose the mid-tier school and regret it.

  5. I love the “defensible moat” analogy. It’s so true. I don’t know how much my college degree has actually benefited me in my current job, however it was a minimum requirement to obtain my job. In my field (higher education student services) education credentials are required pieces of paper. Generally regarded as a free pass to upward mobility.

  6. Scott says:

    When visiting a college, prospective students really should make sure to stop by Career Services and see how good they are, but most lack the foresight to realize they should do that. College salespeople (known as Admissions) like to say things like “you did great at history in high school, you should think about studying that more here!” not “you might like history but if you study it here, you pretty much have to go to grad school later”.

    The real devil here (I think) is that banks can make all sorts of stupidly large loans to naive students because they know you can’t ever get out of them! Student loans don’t get erased in a bankruptcy like other loans can be. The banks can literally come after you for payments for the rest of your life! I think if people were allowed to default and settle or clear student loans like they do on other loans, banks (and schools) would become much more responsible.

    • saladdin says:

      I didn’t see parents listed anywhere in your post concerning guiding or teaching their children about careers and loans.

      • daenyll says:

        I was the first in my family to complete a college degree, and I’m still the one with the best idea of what to expect from student aid situations. Going in none of us had a clue, but I did a lot of research on what to look for. It would be nice if parents were able to offer sound financial guidance to their children, but we’ve clearly seen evidence in recent years that the general population can make some seriously bad financial choices even when common sense and data are readily available.

      • Donald says:

        Good point! I was the first one in over four generations to get a college degree. My blue collar parents had no clue about college in terms of what to advise of how to advise. I had to do it one my own, luckily, I got really favorable interest rates and I got a highly maketable degree. Yes, I made smart choices, but I also have been very lucky.

  7. gharkness says:

    I think in general, a college degree is “worth it” if you don’t spend too much and take advantage of the doors it will open for you.

    However, there ARE the people who just can’t be held down. There are two people of my personal acquaintance who have not completed more than a few hours of college, and aren’t even close to earning a degree.

    Both of them are at Director level in their industries (which, by the way, are very competitive industries and we are talking global companies too). One of them makes more than I do; the other one makes more than my husband and I together (and I have a master’s degree; he has a bachelor’s degree and many years experience). I just heard from the second one of a promotion. He’s homing in on 2X the combined salaries of my husband and I.

    So it’s not all about the degrees. Sometimes it’s about ambition and the ability to produce.

  8. JamesV says:

    I only have an Associates Arts Degree, and have thought a lot about getting a BA.

    I picked a career on purpose where schooling didn’t drive my salary. My effort drove my salary/$. I make $27/hour without a BA, and no other debt aside from my home mortgage debt. I have a family of 4.

    Our society/gov’t says everyone needs to go to college. I think this is a tough call for many people.

    I wish there were more programs available for on-the-job training, apprenticeships, technical training, admin/project mngt training, management traning, etc, where people could learn while working and get promoted fairly to work there way up as high/$ as they want to go. With the lean workforces these days, this is very tough to do in the past 5 years.

  9. Donald says:

    Its difficult for me to take this question seriously, but at the risk of dignifying a silly question, the answer is absolutely yes.

    A college degree is worth every penny a person pays for it with certain obvious caveats, you have to be young enough to pay back your student loans in a timely manner and your degree has to be desirable and marketable. For example, 50 year old med students or 60 year old law school students are risky propositions, so too are humanities, art, and english degrees no matter your age.

    I am on Chris Farrell’s team on this one and if you need evidence to back up my contention just look at the current unemployment rate for people with bachelor’s degrees versus those without.

  10. Chuck says:

    A recent story detailed that thousands of jobs were available in the high-tech industries in America which have been vacant through the recession due to the lack of qualified candidates. Many of these jobs are jobs that could be filled by people with even a meager understanding of mathematics and process control. Before asking whether it is worth it to spend 30,000 dollars on an advanced degree, perhaps we should be asking why, after 12 years of public education, many young Americans lack even the modest ability to operate a machine, or troubleshoot a production process. During the industrial expansion of this country, it was considered wise, and even honorable, to learn a trade, and those that did fueled our economy for a century. Public education today seems to regard practical skills with scorn, focusing instead on various ways to boost self-esteem at the cost of developing capable minds. How anyone can call a 12 year program that produces unemployable people a success is a wonder. Every car on the road seems to have a “my child was an honor student” bumper sticker on it. In our public schools today, that and a dollar will get you on the bus. To sum up, all the college degrees in the world are no substitute for basic skills, and aren’t worth the paper they are printed on if those holding them can’t think critically. American businesses have recognized this, will the rest of us?

  11. NoNonsenseNick says:

    College (Bachelors) is absolutely worth it for certain degrees but a HUGE waste of money for degrees such as history and psychology. These degrees do matter but many kids do not realize at 18 that only Doctorates matter in these fields.

    More importantly, its sad to see that all the trades in America getting forgotten about as we force unqualified high school teens into college and not trade school.

  12. joe,bassett says:


  13. AMP says:

    For “Your Take?” posts, would you please post a quick poll as well? It’d be very useful as a snapshot.

    Of course the comments are going to be more valuable than a simple multiple choice, but it’d be nice to have in addition. Thanks!

  14. freeby50 says:

    Yes its worth it.

    If you’re able to handle college. If you’re able to graduate. If you pick a degree that is actually in demand in some way. If you pursue a career in the degree field that you studied. If you don’t spend way too much on an overpriced college and pile up excessive amounts of loans.

    If you drop out of college, if you pick a degree nobody wants to pay you for, or if you end up with 100k in student loans then its not worth it.

    • Yarn Bomber says:

      AMEN! IF you can line up the IFs. I work in a field where a specialized apprenticeship will get you much further than a degree. One of our senior managers said, “The first thing you have do do with school-kids is UN-train them.”

  15. Mike says:

    Yes, if your degree is in demand during this recession / depression. You’ll feel like an idiot when you get out of college with a boat load of student loans and could only find a job working in Mickey D’s.

  16. govenar says:

    I think a college degree shows an employer that you’re able to complete tasks that are assigned to you, so it has some value in getting you past a quick screening method.

  17. Robert says:

    I enjoyed reading all of the comments and have to agree with everyone, it the respect; ‘It depends” Debt is a 4-letter word and some students are buried in it when they graduate. I do not have a college degree, but have worked since I was 10 years old (I’l be 45 next week), doing everything from Farm work to Factory, work to sales etc. etc.. (you name it I have probably done it). That said, Every job I have ever had I have learned something of value. Yes, even sweeping floors. TOday I mangage IT People up and down the East coast and have people with Bachelor’s and Masters Degrees that report to me. No, I am not better than them and maybe not even smarter than they are, but I work hard and am very resourceful and have been fortunate and blessed along the way. Find something you love to do (that you can get paid for). It isn’t always about the money. Yes money is vitally important but it is more important you properly manage what you have vs having more to mis-manage.

  18. daenyll says:

    I think that some students these days just aren’t mature enough straight out of high school to complete a college degree, even if they may have the intelligence to pull it off. My sister floundered a couple semesters at community college and dropped out to go to cosmetology school. She finished that and has been working for a few years, and has grown up a lot. She has now returned to a program to be a veterinary technician and do something she’ll really enjoy and can make a lifelong career of.
    Trade schools may be the better choice for many individuals that get pushed to college/university and have no idea what to do with their time there. There’s absolutely no excuse to take 5yrs to finish a single bachelor’s degree but the trend has been going towards these longer schooling times because students have lacked direction or motivation to take the necessary credits and get out quicker and with less expense.

  19. To agree with others again – it depends.

    In my case, I have a degree in Finance, work as a programmer and write a personal finance blog. I believe that many times now days that it is good just to have a degree. It shows prospective employers that you have the perseverance to complete something as challenging as college.

    daenyll – I have often wondered why the degree programs are taking students more than 4 years. My daughter is a senior in college, but she will have an extra one or two semesters before she graduates.

  20. freeby50 says:

    I can understand why it usually takes over 4 years to get a bachelors. I had 15 credits going into college from AP courses, I knew exactly what major I wanted from the start, I planned it all out well in advance and I was able to graduated in 4 years. So it can be quite easy for it to take over 4 years if you don’t do everything just right. Graduating in 4 years is of course doable but you do have to be careful and plan things right and not repeat courses and not change majors etc.

    • daenyll says:

      I finished my bachelors in the 4yrs, had only 3 credits going in. I spent 7 months on a coop assignment working away from campus so I was unable to take any of my core classes during that time, and I had to repeated a chemistry course because I was not satisfied with the original grade. At my school the normal course load was 18 credits a semester, they even ended up raising the max allowable load during the time I was there. I took humanity/social science required courses over the summers for half tuition, or took them from a community college while working the summer and while on coop. The courses I took off campus transferred for graduation requirements, but did not apply to my GPA.

      I was actually surprised when I returned to do my master’s degree at a state school and found that the normal course load for bachelor’s was only 12 credits. It seemed very lax to me, and definitely explained the longer graduation trend.

  21. MizLoo says:

    Am I the only one reading this who read “Shop Class As Soul Craft?” IF you go to college to get a job that can be done “at the end of a wire” you will be competing with English-speaking college graduates all over the world. Many of them live in countries where the cost of living – and therefore salaries- are way lower than here. If you get a job in one of these areas, you will be in a low wage situation.

    The only job security (to any extent & it’s never truly secure) is to learn or train for a job that requires your hands to be physically present in the work space – mechanical work such as plumbing, nursing, construction, medicine. Many lawyers are unemployed – the research can be outsourced.

    Look at the PHYSICAL requirements of the job; if you will have to TOUCH a patient, a pipe, a tool, then you have a job that is hard to outsource.

    Find a career like that (one that coincides with your intellectual and physical gifts) and then get the education that fits you for it. If you want a liberal arts degree (which is in itself a very good thing) take night classes to get an education. Train for a job.

  22. Luke says:

    I do think a college degree is worth it, it has become the bare minimum for many white collar jobs. A college degree is becoming the new high school diploma. Graduating high school means very little nowadays.

    For that matter, a college degree doesn’t have the same weight any more. I could see in the next 10+ years a master’s degree slowly taking over the college degree.

    The problem with a high school diploma as your last bit of education is that anyone can get it. In my state you can’t fail the test. The problem with college is that it is a pretty easy deal. How do you weed out potential job applicants based on passing high school and college if “everyone” can do it?

  23. Swoop says:

    While studying Political Science in college, I worked as a server in a fine dining steak house. I learned as much about restaurants as I did about Politics in the time going to class. At the end of the day, I took a management position in a restaurant without finishing my degree in order to curb any further debt. I run a chain sports bar today and love it. I get to act like a mayor of my four walls and get paid $30 dollars an hour even though I just turned 30. My girlfriend just finished her Master’s degree and is making $15,000 less a year than I am working a government job. All that being said, I’d like to go back to school just a personal accomplishment, but I have unlimited potential with a company that has 1000 restaurants and is still currently growing through the recession.

  24. Anonymous says:

    I think college can be a waste of time if you go in without goals OR you don’t really plan for graduation ahead of time. A lot of people complain because they don’t get a job immediately after college, but from what I’ve seen all those people didn’t start looking in to jobs and positions and companies until a month or two before graduation. College, like anything else worth pursuing, will give back as much as you put in.

  25. vanessa says:

    I think college can be a waste of time if you go in without goals OR you don’t really plan for graduation ahead of time. A lot of people complain because they don’t get a job immediately after college, but from what I’ve seen all those people didn’t start looking in to jobs and positions and companies until a month or two before graduation. College, like anything else worth pursuing, will give back as much as you put in.

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