Like many American students, I grew up being told by my parents that attending college was not optional — it was mandatory. Because of this, I had no plan B for what to do after high school. My parents believed in the power of education to serve as a vessel of social mobility and to provide me and my siblings with a more fulfilling life than we would have otherwise had. The question of whether college is still worth it, especially with the rise in student debt and increasing tuition costs, is hotly debated. After a few minutes of scrolling through any social media platform, you will find an abundance of day traders, entrepreneurs and influencers claiming that college is a waste of time. Even Elon Musk has questioned whether the workforce needs college graduates. As a recent college graduate who has often contemplated the value of my University of Michigan undergraduate degree, I can confidently answer that yes, college is still worth it.
While there are people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg who have led extremely successful careers without earning a college degree, their stories are exceptions to the rule. For the average person, earning a college degree, including a two-year degree, results in higher annual earnings, a lower chance of being unemployed, a lower chance of living in poverty and higher job satisfaction compared to those with no postsecondary education. Additionally, the median annual earnings has continued to climb for people with Bachelor’s degrees, while those without are not experiencing these increases.
Of course, there are people who have been financially successful without going to college, but if the pandemic economy and the Great Recession taught us anything, it’s how insecure the job market is. While business ventures may fall apart, a college degree never expires. Whether it is ethical to judge someone’s abilities or intellect based on a college degree is a separate issue. From an economic standpoint, a college education can be one of the greatest investments a person makes. There are caveats, including the long-term return-on-investment when high student debts are considered, but overall, there is still clear evidence that a college degree is worth it.
The financial benefits of a college degree are not the only things that make college worth it. We often treat college as a means to an end — typically a high-paying job — but there is so much more we can take away from the experience. College provides an abundance of opportunities that give us new passions, new skills and new perspectives. Clubs, Fraternity & Sorority Life and on-campus job opportunities give students the ability to explore new and varied interests in a way they wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Student organizations can serve as creative outlets, opportunities for humanitarian activities and resources for developing skills that are vital in and out of the workforce.
The skills we learn and develop in college are necessary for every aspect of life. Embedded in college curriculums are the coursework and projects which provide tools that help us navigate the world. Though I hated each and every one of the presentations I had to give in front of a lecture hall filled with my peers, I developed the ability to effectively communicate big ideas concisely to a variety of audiences. Even though group projects are usually dreaded, they provide the perfect opportunity to progress our ability to work with others and manage multiple tasks simultaneously. The exorbitant amount of reading and writing that is required for many classes expands our ability to problem solve, think critically and analytically and identify the main points of an argument. If any of those sound like lines from a job posting, it’s because those are the skills employers want and that colleges provide. Education also makes us more informed citizens. Many degrees require credits from an assortment of disciplines, which helps to broaden our understanding of the world.
The value and enjoyment many students get just from learning more about subjects that interest them shouldn’t be ignored. Though I may never need to use the knowledge of different types of rocks and fossils I learned in a geology class in my career, walks in nature or along the lakeshore are a lot more interesting because of that class. My coursework allowed me to explore processes of democratization, to learn multiple foreign languages and to research women’s health issues across the developing world. Four years later and I’m walking away as a more empathetic, inquisitive and resourceful person than when I started college, and it’s not just because I’m getting older.
College is a tool that, when wielded correctly, can have a long-lasting positive impact on someone’s life. Especially for low-income and first-generation students, perpetuating a narrative that denies the value of college and the doors a degree can open is dangerous. No one should be scared away from continuing their education. We must continue to provide resources to make college more accessible to the people whose life opportunities can be most improved by higher education.
Theodora Vorias is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.