Is College Still the Best Way to a Career? The Experts Weigh In
On the surface, it might seem like earning a four-year college degree is a straight path to career success. According to analysis by The Hamilton Project, the median career earnings for someone with a bachelor’s degree is more than twice as high as someone with only a high school diploma or GED.
Of course, the actual earnings a person can expect depends a lot on the career field they choose. A graduate with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, for instance, can expect cumulative lifetime earnings of $770,000, while a degree in aerospace engineering provides $2.28 million in median lifetime earnings.
Not to mention, about six in 10 college seniors graduate with student loan debt, and owe an average of $28,950, according to the most recent report from The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS). College graduates may earn more, but there’s a strong chance that a good chunk of those earnings will be eaten up by student loans and interest. And as a side effect, many are forced to delay major goals such as buying a home or saving for retirement.
So is going to college and earning a degree still the best way to a solid career? We asked the experts.
Benefits of a College Degree
There’s no doubt that a college degree gives you certain advantages over high school graduates, according to Rodney Chan, a representative of college admissions counseling company WeAdmit. Some major ones include:
A chance to explore your career field at a high level
College can’t prepare you 100% for the career field you’re interested in, but the courses you take for your major will give you a good idea of what it will entail. “For example, if you’re interested in a career in the medical field, taking the prerequisite biology and chemistry courses will give you a preview of what you may be in for if you go this career path,” Chan said. “College will give you the space and time to really explore what you’re looking for in your future career.”
Opportunities for internships
While pursuing a college degree, your college may have programs that will match you up with internships in your career field. In fact, interning may be a requirement to earn your degree. “Within the internship programs, you can receive hands-on learning while getting to meet other professionals who have made that career field their chosen profession,” Chan said.
Access to the alumni network
Some may say that going to college is as much about meeting the right people as it is learning. “As part of obtaining a college degree, you now have direct access to your school’s resources and alumni contact information for people that pursued the same field you are pursuing,” Chan said. If they’re open to it, you can fellow grads questions about the types of jobs they applied for and accepted post-graduation.
“As a bonus, they may even be able to be a great connection for you in future career opportunities down the line,” Chan added.
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It Comes Down to What You Want To Do
Even though attending college can give you a leg up in the job market, it’s not a guarantee that you’ll find career success. And there are many legitimate, high-paying careers that don’t require a four-year degree.
“Whether college is the best path to a career really depends on what career you want to pursue,” said Sung Rhee, CEO of Optimal, a higher education research publisher. For some careers, he explained, a bachelor’s degree is required and the expected salary is usually worth the investment. A career in nursing, for instance, often requires a bachelor’s degree and can result in a high average salary after graduation. A field such as writing may or may not be worth the cost of a traditional college education. “It’s important to always compare the median debt to the median salary of alumni in order to determine the return on investment,” Rhee said.
It’s also important to consider alternative education options, which can be significantly cheaper and lead to similar job opportunities, he added. “For example, if you want to pursue coding, boot camps can be a great alternative to a computer science degree, as they are around 10% of the cost of a four-year degree and can offer similar outcomes at big-tech companies.”
In many cases, going to college is a smart move. That is, as long as you choose a high-paying career field and limit your debt. But it’s not the only road to a fulfilling career. So before you commit to a four-year (or more) degree program, spend some time researching the ROI on pursuing that field and other ways to get an education for less.
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