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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.
But — when carefully planned — the investment in a college education can be very well worth it, as close to six in 10 degree-holders say that having a degree has benefitted both their salary and career growth.
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.
Tuition ROI statistics
- As of the first quarter of 2023, Americans owe roughly $1.77 trillion in student loan debt.
- Bachelor’s degree recipients who borrowed for their education have an average of $29,100 in student loan debt.
- In 2023, 54% of bachelor’s degree recipients graduated with student loan debt.
- The average published cost of attendance in 2022-23 was $27,940 for in-state undergraduates at four-year public universities and $57,570 for undergraduates at four-year private universities.
- Approximately 3 in 5 employers require a college degree for all entry-level positions.
- The average projected starting salary for a 2023 bachelor’s degree graduate is $55,260.
- On average, Bachelor’s degree holders earn 84% more than high school graduates.
- The unemployment rate for high school graduates is 6.2% — almost twice as high as that of bachelor’s degree holders, which sits at 3.5%.
- Roughly 60% of college graduates who took student loans have delayed important financial milestones due to their debt.
- Despite the financial woes, 6 in 10 degree-holders say their college degree has benefited their salary and career prospects.
Student loan debt vs. income
Federal Reserve data shows that total student loan debt in America has increased by 67 percent in the last decade. However, College Board found that students generally borrow less in federal loans than they used to. It is estimated that between 2011-12 and 2021-22 federal student loan borrowing among undergraduate and graduate students decreased by 49 percent and 9 percent, respectively, after adjusting for inflation.
Student loans can be expensive, especially now that interest rates are rising, so it’s critical to find ways of reducing college costs before taking on debt. For instance, attending an in-state school versus an out-of-state school can save students an average of $17,300 per year. 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.
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.
With expenses, prospective students may wonder: is the cost of college 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 $579 more in median weekly earnings than workers with just a high school diploma:
|Median weekly earnings
|High school diploma
College major ROI
Each college major has a different lifetime value — 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.
Most valuable college majors
|Average base salary
|Naval architecture and marine engineering
Least valuable college majors
In contrast, some majors are bound to earn less, especially for new graduates: here are the five lowest-earning degrees, per data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
|Average base salary
|Theology and religion
|Family and consumer sciences
|Leisure and hospitality
Layoffs and degrees
In early 2023, big tech companies like Google, Microsoft, Meta and Amazon laid off thousands of employees as fears of a looming recession intensified. Many borrowers found it only natural to think twice about spending thousands of dollars on a degree.
However, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that unemployment rates remain substantially higher among those without a degree. For instance, the unemployment rate among high school graduates is currently 6.2%, compared with 3.5%, which is the unemployment rate among bachelor’s degree holders.
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: Full-time employees who have earned a bachelor’s degree make an average of $579 more per week than those with a high school diploma — or $30,108 per year.
- Career opportunities: Attending college gives you the skills necessary to succeed in various careers and fields of study. Employers also highly value a college degree. Eighty-seven percent of employers said in an Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) survey that earning a degree is definitely or probably worth it.
- 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.
- Skills: College students 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 fosters soft skills like time management and organization.
Alternatives to college
A college education isn’t the right choice for everyone and isn’t necessary for every career field. Thankfully, there are plenty of alternatives if a traditional degree isn’t in the cards.
Unlike a traditional college education, trade school focuses on training students in a specific skill. Trade work spans many careers, including electrician work, plumbing work, nursing and culinary arts.
Trade school programs cost between $5,000 and $15,000 total, and they last several months to two years. The shorter time frame allows trade school graduates to enter the workforce earlier. Not only that, but these careers come with good earning prospects. For instance, the annual median income for an electrician in the U.S. is just over $60,000, and in the 90th percentile, reaches over six figures.
Going to trade school can be a good choice for those who know exactly what field they want to enter and want to save time and money getting there.
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. According to Apprenticeship.gov, 93 percent of apprentices who complete a registered program retain employment, with an average annual salary of $77,000. What’s more: these programs often come at no cost for participants, so the ROI is very well worth it.
Coding boot camp
A coding boot camp is an expidited program that gives students the skills necessary to enter a career in computer science. Although some are free, you can expect to pay anywhere from a couple of thousand dollars to up to $21,000 for more advanced programs.
Coding boot camps tend to be short. Some of them last a couple of weeks, while most can last several months. However, financing them can be tricky since you won’t qualify for traditional federal student aid and will have to cover out-of-pocket costs or take out private student loans.
The bottom line
College is worth it for many people, considering the experience, job security and salary potential of a degree. However, students should still be mindful of their costs. With student loan debt often lasting for at least a decade, choosing an affordable school and reducing expenses as much as possible is prudent. Before taking on debt, run the numbers through a student loan calculator to better understand what your postcollege repayment will look like and how that compares to your potential starting salary.