The data in support of a college education is strong.
College graduates tend to have better career and financial outcomes. In 2022, they earned 75% more on average than their high school-alone educated peers, according to the San Francisco Fed, and had an unemployment rate of 2%, compared with 7% among high school graduates, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
But there are drawbacks: Most notably, a student debt crisis that has left millions of Americans collectively owing over a trillion dollars for their education. So it can be increasingly difficult to determine if a college education is worth it.
“If you don’t anticipate the need for diversity in what you do, if changing careers and your work life are not going to be the primary source of satisfaction in your life — I think that would be unusual — but maybe college isn’t worth it,” Tim Davis, associate professor of leadership and public policy at the University of Virginia, tells CNBC Make It.
Overall, though, he says, “There’s not a better substitute for college when it comes to learning to problem solve, work effectively in groups of people, live with people who think differently than me and look differently than me and have different beliefs than me.
“College provides just an unbelievable opportunity.”
With the statistical outcomes for college graduates so strong, it can be jarring for parents to face a child who tells them they don’t want to go. Making the decision for your child probably won’t go over too smoothly, either.
But is the traditional 4-year college experience still the right choice for every student?
“It really depends on how career-minded you are, how much career diversity you want, how much vocational resilience you want to build into your work life,” says Davis. “For many people, [a bachelor’s degree] is an insurance policy.”
As a college professor, he admits he’s a little biased in favor of higher education. But Davis is also a clinical psychologist with years of experience lecturing on building resiliency, community and self-awareness.
A bachelor’s can make it significantly easier to develop your career, either by getting a job in a new field or allowing you to pursue an advanced degree.
While it’s definitely possible to find career and financial success without a college degree, Davis says, having a bachelor’s gives you more flexibility and resilience to what he calls “vocational adversities.” These can be unexpected, challenging events, like a layoff, or positive changes like landing a promotion or moving to a new city.
Earning your bachelor’s degree is often expensive, which scares off a lot of students. The cost of higher education was the primary reason for would-be students not obtaining or finishing their college degree, according to a 2022 study by Edge Research for the Gates Foundation.
But Erika Katz, parenting expert and author of “Coach Parenting: Raising Teenagers with Advice from Pro Football’s Greatest Head Coaches,” encourages students and their families to explore all their options.
“People think that there’s only one way to go to college, [which] is not true,” Katz tells CNBC Make It.
There are a variety of ways to make a degree more affordable, such as choosing to start in community college, attending a public university in your home state, or applying for scholarships and grants to pay for your education.
Regardless of what you wind up paying — and who pays for it — higher ed is an investment. Encourage your college-bound children to take it seriously to maximize the returns on their investment, both in deciding where they go and while they’re attending, Katz says.
“Tell your children to look at college as a consumer and [ask], ‘Am I getting what I’m paying for?'” Katz says. “You’re paying a lot of money for those classes. You need to try to get the most out of them.”
She supports the idea of making your child pay for some part of their college years, whether that means taking on loans themselves or paying for their living expenses, so they feel the seriousness of the investment.
Even after you’ve brought up all your facts and arguments, you and your child may still not come to an agreement of whether they should go to college, and that’s OK. Aim to be “great coaches” for your kids, Davis says.
“Coaches don’t tell people what to do,” he says. “Coaches are really great at tapping into a wise part of young adults and helping them to sort out their own thinking and facilitate their problem solving around the question of, ‘Do I go to college or not? Is now the right time?'”
One way to do that is to ask questions and let your child share how they’re thinking.
There are endless examples of successful people who didn’t attend or finish college, like Mark Zuckerberg or Oprah Winfrey. Davis and Katz both point out that kids will bring up these examples to bolster their arguments about why they don’t need a degree.
Let those examples open up a dialogue, Davis says.
“Say more about that. Tell me about this person or that person,” Davis says he might say during those conversations. “What makes you think it’s worth it? What makes you think it’s not worth it?”
Today’s high school students have grown up with social media influencers like Charli D’Amelio or Ryan Kaji of Ryan’s World who’ve earned millions of dollars well before they even have to think about college, much less attend. But being a well-paid influencer isn’t exactly a fool-proof plan.
“You have to think of longevity in a career,” Katz says.
Joining the workforce right out of high school may offer an 18-year-old the best salary they’ve ever seen. But Katz says the skills and experience you get in college will likely help you get ahead in the long-term.
“Maybe your friend doesn’t go to college, and they come out of school making $50,000 a year,” Katz says, offering a hypothetical. “Chances are in 10 years, maybe they’re making $70,000. You could come out of [college] making $50,000, yes, but you have the potential to maybe make $150,000 or $200,000.”
It’s not just about future salary, either. While acknowledging that there is a bias among people who went to college or work in higher education saying it’s worth it, Davis points out students get so much more than a degree out of the experience.
“People really underestimate the soft value of a college education,” he says.
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