Rising tuition costs, increasing student loan interest rates and a higher cost of living in the U.S. has left potential college students questioning the value of a college degree. Many students regret how much student loan debt they took out for their education; in a Bankrate survey about student loan debt, 69 percent of respondents said that they would have done something differently in regards to their student loans. However, there are strategies to reduce the overall cost of attendance — and when carefully planned, the investment in a college education can be well worth it.

Loan Student
Bankrate insight
Thirty-six percent of Americans surveyed took out student loans. Of those, 23 percent of Gen Z respondents and 22 percent of millennials would have attended a cheaper school in hindsight.

Key student loan statistics

  • As of the first quarter of 2022, Americans owe roughly $1.75 trillion in student loan debt.
  • Bachelor’s degree recipients who borrowed for their education have an average of $28,400 in student loan debt.
  • In 2019-20, 55 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients graduated with student loan debt.
  • The average published cost of attendance in 2021-22 was $27,330 for in-state undergraduates at four-year public universities and $55,800 for undergraduates at four-year private universities.
  • The average projected starting salary for a class of 2022 bachelor’s degree graduate ranges from $50,681 for humanities majors to $75,900 for computer sciences majors.

Student loan debt vs. income

Federal Reserve data shows that total student loan debt in America has increased by nearly 66 percent in the last decade, although College Board found that students are generally borrowing less in federal loans than they used to. In 2010-11, for instance, undergraduates who took out Direct Unsubsidized or Subsidized Loans borrowed an average of $7,500. In 2020-21, they borrowed an average of $6,470.

Student loans can be expensive, which is why it’s critical to find ways of reducing college costs before taking on debt. Attending an in-state school versus an out-of-state school, for instance, can save students an average of $16,820 per year, according to College Board. In Bankrate’s student debt survey, 17 percent of borrowers said that, if given the opportunity to make different decisions in hindsight, they would have attended a cheaper school; 23 percent would have applied for more scholarships and 20 percent would have worked more while in school. Those percentages are much higher for Gen Z students.

Loan Student
Bankrate insight
Eighty-five percent of Gen Z students who have or had student debt say they’d do something different to pay for college with the benefit of hindsight.

Even with rising college costs, the returns could very well be worth it. In the same Bankrate survey, 59 percent of graduates who have or had student loan debt reported that their higher education unlocked career and earning potential that they wouldn’t have otherwise had. Bureau of Labor Statistics data backs this up, with bachelor’s degree recipients earning $525 more in median weekly earnings than workers with just a high school diploma:

Degree Median weekly earnings
High school diploma $809
Associate degree $963
Bachelor’s degree $1,334
Master’s degree $1,574

College major ROI

Each college major has a different lifetime value — also known as the return on investment (ROI) — based on the median salary that degree-earners make compared to the cost of their program and the average amount of debt necessary to earn the degree.

While ROI shouldn’t be the only factor in choosing a major, it should be considered when calculating the long-term value of an education. In Bankrate’s survey, 19 percent of respondents said that when looking back, they would have chosen a different degree due to their student loan debt. That number rises to 23 percent for Gen Z respondents.

Here are the top five most- and least-valuable college majors from a 2021 Bankrate data study evaluating the most valuable college majors:

Is college worth it?

Despite the rising costs, there are multiple benefits of attending college, among them being potential earning increases, broader career opportunities and increased job security.

Some of the biggest benefits of a college education include:

  • Better pay: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, full-time employees who have earned a bachelor’s degree make an average of $525 more per week than those with a high school diploma — or $27,300 per year.
  • Career opportunities: Attending college gives you the skills necessary to succeed in a wide range of careers and fields of study. Employers also highly value a college degree; in fact, 87 percent of employers said in an Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) survey that earning a degree is either definitely or probably worth it.
  • Skills: Students who attend college have a unique opportunity to gain skills unrelated to their major or field of study. Most schools offer clubs and organizations that focus on valuable career-building skills. For instance, students who want to develop public speaking skills may join an organization like Toastmasters. College also gives students soft skills like time management and organization.
  • Experience: The act of simply completing a degree can prepare students for what a professional career could look like. Plus, many degree programs require students to get a summer internship in their field of study to graduate. This not only provides invaluable on-the-job experience, but also opens the door to future employment opportunities.

Alternatives to college

A college education isn’t the right choice for everyone, and it isn’t necessary for every career field. Thankfully, there are plenty of alternatives if a traditional degree isn’t in the cards.

Trade school

Trade school, unlike a traditional college education, focuses on training students in a specific skill. Trade work spans a wide range of careers, including electrician work, plumbing work, nursing and culinary arts.

On average, trade school costs less than a traditional college degree and does not last as long, so students don’t have to delay entering the workforce. Because of this, it could be a good choice for students who know exactly what field they want to enter and want to save time and money getting there.

Apprenticeships

An apprenticeship allows students to complete on-the-job training while undergoing classroom instruction. These programs typically last between one and six years. Apprenticeships are paid and must be registered with the U.S. Department of Labor or a state apprenticeship agency.

There are thousands of careers that offer apprenticeship programs, and some programs even allow students to earn college credits if they wish to later attend a degree program. One of the biggest benefits is that apprenticeships are paid and often lead to full-time employment.

Coding boot camp

A coding boot camp is a short-term program that gives students the skills necessary to enter a career in computer science. These programs typically last for a few months and cost several thousand dollars, but often they can help with job placement. Plus, these programs are an easy way to network with other professionals and are much cheaper than a four-year or even two-year computer science degree.

The bottom line

College is worth it for many people, considering the experience, job security and salary potential that comes along with a degree. However, students should still be mindful of their costs; with student loan debt often lasting for at least a decade, it’s prudent to choose an affordable school and reduce expenses as much as possible. Before taking on debt, run the numbers through a student loan calculator to get a better picture of what your postcollege repayment will look like and how that compares to your potential starting salary.

Bankrate.com commissioned YouGov Plc to conduct the survey. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 3,939 adults, among whom 1,442 have, or had, student loan debt for their own education. Fieldwork was undertaken on March 29 through April 1, 2022. The survey was carried out online and meets rigorous quality standards. It employed a non-probability-based sample using both quotas upfront during collection and then a weighting scheme on the back end designed and proven to provide nationally representative results.