College does matter and is absolutely worth it - if you choose a program that matches your career goals, graduate on time, and avoid too much debt.
Almost every job that leads to a promising career, with good pay and benefits, requires education or training beyond high school. For most high-paying professional jobs, that means a four-year college degree.
At the same time, career training or short-term educational programs for a growing number of technical fields can pay off, too.
For many, the question is: college or trade school?
Is college worth the cost?
If you stick with your studies and graduate in a reasonable time, college is worth the cost. The vast majority of college graduates are better off financially than their peers who didn’t complete college. College degrees are still in high demand from employers, and completing college is a strong sign that you’re ready for high-skilled work.
The key is finding a school where you’re likely to graduate and finish with low or modest debt. The national average is about $28,400, which most graduates are able to pay off because their degree helped them earn a well-paying job. You can find detailed information about college graduation rates, the real cost of college over time, and how potential earnings vary by career field at bigfuture.org. And you can give yourself the opportunity to save time and money toward a degree while you’re in high school by scoring a 3 or higher on an AP Exam to earn college credit.
Students can get into trouble when they don’t graduate, or when they take on significant debt before they’re able to finish. Many college students don’t graduate on time, which makes a degree more expensive. Or they don’t finish at all, which means they don’t get the benefit of higher earnings.
Finishing college is the single most important thing you can do to make it affordable. Students who leave college without graduating are the most likely to have trouble with debt and future employment. As many as 4 in 10 students who start a 4-year degree program don’t finish in 6 years. Colleges with more resources, like generous financial aid funding, good counselors, and mentoring programs, typically have a better track record of graduating their students on time and with low debt.
What about career or technical training?
There are valuable training and credential options available, but there are also a lot of expensive programs that don’t add much to your résumé. It’s important to know what kind of training is most valuable for your planned career field.
Specific training programs in fields like construction, manufacturing, and healthcare can lead to immediate job opportunities and above-average pay. Job training credentials offered by community colleges, often in partnership with local employers, are some of the highest-rated programs.
Some larger tech companies like IBM, Google, and Apple will accept proof of specific coding or data analytics skills for entry-level jobs. However, they still normally require college degrees for higher-level positions.
Building a long-term career—taking on more responsibility, managing other people, earning more money—is often easier for those with both a college degree and industry-specific credentials. Employers usually see a college degree as meaning you have a set of flexible skills, like critical thinking and communication. Industry-specific credentials are a sign that you have hard skills like coding or database management.
Together, they make a stronger case that you’re ready for skilled work than either alone. Unless you have a very clear sense of your dream job and its required training programs, it’s generally better to pursue both college and industry credentials.
Should I go to college?
Thinking clearly about your goals and college options can help you make the right choice. Feeling confident about your next step after high school, whether that’s college or a high-value career path, will set you up for success.
Many variables affect your life and career, and it’s impossible to plan and predict all of them. It’s most important to find a field that genuinely interests you, then get all the valuable education and training you can in that field. Here are some tips on how to be successful after high school:
- Take classes in college or through a training program.
- Pursue internships with companies or organizations that can give you experience in your chosen field.
- Cultivate mentors who have built careers that interest you and ask how they did it.
You’re much more likely to complete a worthwhile degree or training program if you’re working toward a life and a job you’ll love. Focus on the future you want and be open to different options for getting there.