Is College Still the Best Way to a Career? The Experts Weigh In

Back view of college students raising their arms on a class at lecture hall.
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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.

Find Out: How To Ask Your College for More Financial Aid
Discover: What It Really Costs To Attend America’s Top 50 Colleges

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.

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So is going to college and earning a degree still the best way to a solid career? We asked the experts.

See: 30 Odd Jobs That Pay Insanely Well

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.”

Read: What It Would Really Mean To Cancel Student Loan Debt

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.

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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.

Check It Out: Where These Top CEOS Went To College

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. 

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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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Last updated: Aug. 12, 2021

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About the Author

Casey Bond is seasoned editor and writer who has covered personal finance for more than a decade. Currently, she is a reporter for HuffPost covering money, home and living. Previously, she held editorial management roles at Student Loan Hero and GOBankingRates. Casey’s work has also appeared on Yahoo!, Business Insider, MSN, The Motley Fool, U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, TheStreet and more.
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