Many personal finance bloggers seem to have a vendetta against college. Money Twitter (an informal description for the personal finance community on everyone’s favorite bird-themed app) is filled with hot takes about why Gumroad courses are better than college.
But are these opinions based in fact? Is college a waste of time and money? Let’s discuss!
Is college a waste of time and money? What the numbers say
Before I share some subjective food for thought, let’s see what the numbers have to say.
College graduates earn (lots) more on average
According to the Lumina Foundation, college graduates earn $32,000 more each year on average than those whose highest educational certification is a high school diploma. This translates into lifetime earnings that are $625,000 higher for college graduates than those who merely have high school diplomas.
College graduates face lower unemployment rates
In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, recent college graduates in America faced an unemployment rate of 6.9%, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Meanwhile, young workers as a whole (including those without college degrees) faced an unemployment rate of 15.8%.
This trend held true during the COVID-19 pandemic as well. Here were the unemployment rates for various education levels in April 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:
- no high school diploma: 21.2%
- high school diploma but nothing else: 17.3%
- some college (i.e. associate degree): 15%
- bachelor’s degree or higher: 8.4%
As Forbes reports, this trend even holds true outside of recessions. Here were the numbers in August 2019:
- no high school diploma: 5.4%
- high school diploma but nothing else: 3.6%
- some college (i.e. associate degree): 3.0%
- bachelor’s degree or higher: 2.1%
College graduates face lower poverty rates
An even starker contrast can be observed if you compare poverty rates among those at various education levels. Here’s the data, according to the University of California Davis:
- no high school diploma: 29%
- high school diploma but nothing else: 14%
- some college but no degree: 10%
- bachelor’s degree or higher: 5%
The value of a college degree has increased over time
According to a 2014 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, the earnings disparity between college graduates and non-college graduates has increased over time. Here’s what median wages (in 2012 dollars) at various education levels looked like in 1965:
- high school diploma but nothing else: $31,384
- some college: $33,655
- bachelor’s degree or higher: $38,833
And here are the 2013 figures:
- high school diploma but nothing else: $28,000
- some college: $30,000
- bachelor’s degree or higher: $45,500
In plain terms, those with bachelor’s degrees were the only demographic to see their median wages rise in real dollar terms from 1965 to 2013.
So, is college a waste of time and money? Some empirical food for thought
The data is pretty clear: on average, people who attend college fare better in the economy than those who don’t. Nonetheless, however, many people still often argue against attending college. Here’s some food for thought in that regard.
College is about more than “liberal indoctrination”
While I’ll avoid getting too political here, many people I see disparaging college online seemingly fall into the conservative trap of thinking schools exist solely to churn out liberal activists. They highlight courses such as gender studies and sociology as if that’s all colleges offer.
Spoiler: It’s not.
People also attend college to become doctors, engineers, computer scientists, and enter a variety of other lucrative fields. The “college is a waste of time and money” crowd ignores this too often.
Most 18-year-olds would be unproductive if not for college
Another mistake I’ve seen people make (especially on Money Twitter) is assuming that most 18-year-olds are choosing between attending college and starting the next Microsoft. That’s simply not the case. On the contrary, most 18-year-olds are arguably choosing between attending college and scrounging for shifts at a dead-end retail job.
As adults with years of work experience, we have the benefit of hindsight. Indeed, at 25 I can certainly think of a few productive activities I wish I’d engaged in rather than studying journalism. I didn’t have the insight, discipline, or experience to do those things at 18, though. I only developed those traits through seven years (and counting) of growth. College was an integral part of that.
The student debt crisis isn’t what you think it is
People who believe college is a waste of time and money also often point to the student debt crisis. They insist it doesn’t make sense to spend years drowning in debt when so many lucrative professions don’t require degrees.
The issue here is that stories of widespread insurmountable six-figure student debt are arguably overblown. According to Student Loan Hero, public college graduates owe an average of $25,550. Private, for-profit college graduates owe an average of $39,950.
The vast majority of students are on track to pay off these loans. According to EducationData.org, the average default rate for student loans at any given moment is 15%. That’s still a lot – but arguably not enough to warrant discouraging students from attending college altogether.
College dropout success stories are rare
People love to highlight successful dropouts like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates when arguing that college is a waste of time and money. For every dropout-turned-billionaire, though, there are millions of dropouts scrounging for dead-end jobs.
Data confirms this, with the World Economic Forum highlighting that college dropouts are 70% more likely to be unemployed.
The harsh reality is that (by definition) most people are average. They don’t have the exceptional intelligence and connections that made people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates successful without college. Higher education is often the best bet for moving upwards.
College represents an incredible investment proposition
If I told you the average investor who puts $25,550 into a particular stock ends up turning their investment into $625,000, you’d probably be dying to know what it is. You might even be willing to borrow the $25,550 if you didn’t have it lying around.
Of course, it’s impossible to reliably pick hot stocks so accurately. However, as you may recall from earlier, these sorts of returns are not out of the ordinary for public college graduates, who (on average) carry $25,550 in student debt yet earn $625,000 more over the course of their lives.
My point? It’s pretty hard to beat the potential returns of a college degree.
In case you haven’t noticed, I believe college generally isn’t a waste of time. It certainly can be a waste of time and money under specific circumstances, though. I wrote about these situations in my article titled 10 signs you should drop out of college.
Outside of those scenarios (which usually warrant changing majors after dropping out rather than giving up on higher education altogether), however, college can be an incredibly productive use of time and money.
If you’ve found this article useful, check out my other education and career path-related posts here.