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Is Getting A College Degree Worth It These Days?

By: Brian Kim - August 28, 2007

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I got the idea for this article after overhearing a conversation the other day between two teenagers. One was arguing that getting a degree was the only way to get a good job to make good money and the other was arguing that getting a degree wasn’t necessary in today’s day and age in order to make good money.

I’m sure you or someone you know have had this debate at least once and I think it’s one that’s becoming louder and louder with each new generation.

One side drags the income chart out and points to the statistics of bachelor degree holders earning way more than high school graduates

The other side then gestures to famous high school or college dropouts and the successes they’ve had, proudly pointing out that they didn’t need degrees to succeed and that they had college graduates working for them. One side is proud to claim themselves as “well rounded” for the education they received at university.

The other side points out that what they learned in school doesn’t really help or apply in the “real world.”

The two seem to be endlessly at war, each countering the other’s arguments, dragging the debate to the point where there seems to be no clear winner. Every side seems to have its own pros and cons.

So let’s sort this whole mess out and discover the true value of a college degree and see if it is really worth it in this day and age.

Ever since we were little, we were told college was the answer by our teachers and our parents. We were put on the college conveyor belt. It would give us the good life. It would get us the job and we would make good money because of it.

And they were right.

If they said that to us thirty years ago.

The idea that a college degree alone will help you in life today is obsolete.

Back in the day, everything that was said about getting a degree was true. If you had a degree, you separated yourself from the pack. Not many people were able to get degrees because not many people were able to afford college. It was normally reserved for the rich or upper middle class. And that’s precisely why the degree was so valued,

It was valued because it was scarce.

Scarcity creates value.

Nowadays, more and more people are going to college and in turn, a lot of degrees have been handed out so the scarcity of a college degree has dropped.

For every job opening there is, you have a hundred applicants, all with degrees. What’s going to separate them from one another?

The value of a college degree has declined.

But is there some value left?

The answer is yes.

Here’s the thing that a lot of people overlook when having the degree debate. Most people are only thinking of college in terms of a vehicle that gets them a good job after they graduate.

They fail to realize the other benefits of going to college, aside from getting a job, that are intangible. Things like finding a marriage partner, making life long friends, making good contacts, networking with classmates and professors, the college life itself, exposing yourself to a broader scope of education, developing analytical and critical thinking skills, etc.

If you’re spending tens of thousands of dollars on an education, you might as well get the most out of it because after all, it is an investment on your part.

Unfortunately, according to the rules of society, or the system, whatever you like to call it, having a college degree does open a lot of doors and that’s just the way it is.

If you don’t have a degree, your employment options are significantly reduced. Getting a college degree is important if you want to open up your possibilities in terms of employment. Ask any job recruiter and you’ll see just how important having that degree on your resume is in that respect.

Why that is so, I have no idea. That’s just the way the system is set up and that’s how the game is played unfortunately.

A college degree also serves as a hammer that will help you break the glass and salary ceiling in corporate America. It’s very hard to get into management in Corporate America without a degree and it’s very hard to get past a certain salary level without a degree as well.

Why this is so? Again. It beats me. That’s just how the system is set up. And it’s too bad some companies play by those rules.

But amidst all this talk of a college degree opening doors, high salaries, intangible benefits, there is one major drawback of getting a degree. What is that?

Debt.

They always forget to include that don’t they? But some may say it’s a good investment because you get a high paying job so you can easily pay it off.

But remember, that was then. What about now?

It is precisely this factor of high debt coupled with the dropped value of a college degree in today’s day and age that has led to and sparked the debate of “degree vs. no degree”.

Because the value of a degree has dropped, many college graduates are having hard time finding work. They don’t have experience or marketable skills. Just a degree. So they can’t get that high paying job they want.

Meanwhile, it’s time to pay the piper and more often than not, those monthly payments on the loans they took out are pretty high. Couple that with the fact that credit card companies prey on college kids and the materialistic attitude of today’s generation which contributes to another high monthly bill and you’re looking at Generation Debt.

These college grads have to pay the bills, so they get any kind of job they can to pay the bills, even if it seems “beneath” them.

People on the outside point to this and say: “Aha! That degree you got was useless. Look where it got you. You’re working in a dead end job.”

And the college graduates of course feel the need to defend their investment in college and thus the war starts.

I think in this day and age, there’s a lot of post college disillusionment. Hence, the new phrase - “quarter life crisis” (a sort of mid life crisis for 20 and 30 year olds)

College students graduate with no job lined up because they were still living according to the rules of the past. They thought the all powerful degree would magically open the doors of employment for them.

Meanwhile, there are bills that need to be paid and they can’t get the jobs they want because they have no marketable skills or experience, so they get stuck in less than ideal jobs in order to pay those bills. They can’t seem to break free from those jobs out of fear of not being able to pay the bills and they can’t break into the job they want because they have no experience or skills. A viscous cycle indeed.

The college dreams have failed them. They’ve become disillusioned.

What’s worse is when they don’t even know what they want to do.

They had this path laid out before them ever since they were young but nobody tells them what to do exactly after they graduate. Just marry, buy a house in the suburbs, and have 2.5 kids but nobody fills them in on the financial or career details.

They realize they’ve been had. That what they were told in high school about college was all a lie.

It wasn’t a lie.

It was just an outdated message.

Students need to wake up. Just having a degree alone isn’t going to cut it in today’s day and age.

Real world marketable skills and experience are the things being left out and those are the things that are scarce and will start to differentiate one person from another. These things comprise of the new “degree”.

Now let’s tackle those who argue that a college degree isn’t worth it these days. The argument they use most often is the “Look at Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. They dropped out of college and look at them now.”

Before I go any further, I want to make something perfectly clear. You don’t need a college degree. But can it help? Of course it can. We just discussed the benefits.

But let me say this to those who use the Bill Gates/Steve Jobs argument.

People like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are the exception, not the rule.

And you have to realize that they DID go to college. They did. And who knows if the experiences they had in college shaped their future and contributed to their success.

That’s what happened with Steve Jobs. He got the idea for Apple’s typography after popping into a calligraphy class at college. That’s another benefit of college. It exposes you to a whole new world of ideas that might help you later on in the future.

Of course there are those who never went to college and succeeded. What do I have to say to that?

For every person who makes it even though they dropped out or never went to college, there are thousands who don’t.

Then, there’s a third angle that’s not often mentioned in school today but I figure will soon gain a lot of momentum and that is vocational schooling.

Vocational schooling mostly trains you directly for a specific job. Welder, plumber, electrician, etc. The truth is, these types of blue collar jobs pay just the same, if not more than the jobs that can be obtained with a bachelor’s degree. The only reason why most people don’t go for these types of jobs is the lack of “prestige”.

But let me tell you something about prestige. It’s highly overrated. Most people spend their whole lives trying to impress other people at the expense of their own happiness and that’s ludicrous. People who do this often feel “empty” because they are living a life dictated by the opinions of others. They are in effect, a slave to other’s opinions of themselves. So let’s answer the question once and for all.

Is getting a college degree worth it these days?

The answer is:

It depends on what you want to do.

I know everyone wants a definitive yes or no answer but the truth is, it really does depend on what you want to do.

If you want to become an electrician, vocational school is the answer so a degree isn’t worth it to you.

If you want to become a doctor or lawyer, then of course a degree is worth it to you.

If you want to start your own business, and you have a solid plan with capital, then you might think getting a degree isn’t worth it to you right now.

But therein lays the problem.

Most of our high school students have NO idea what they want to do.

And because they don’t know, they just go along with the “go to college plan”. They do it because it’s the thing to do. So they enroll as an undeclared major, party and waste time, then major in a liberal arts major, graduate, can’t get a job because they have no experience or skills, meanwhile the debt is piling up so they get any job they can to pay the bills and they throw their hands in the air and proclaim that the system has failed them, becoming disillusioned with their lives in the process. If high school students start taking the time to think about their future and what they want to do, they can choose their direction accordingly and avoid a lot of potential problems down the road.

I think that part of the problem here is that there is too much of a “Go to college or else you’ll fail in life” mentality being preached in our schools today.

It’s dangerous to hold that belief because you block out all other options.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think going to college and getting a degree is a great investment, but only for the right reasons.

Now in an ideal world, high school kids will seriously think about their futures and plan accordingly, but let’s face it, most students don’t.

They’re more interested in looking cool, or playing World of Warcraft or buying the latest gadgets.

The problem here is that our educational system is outdated.

It needs to be updated in order to accommodate the times we live in today and help kids realize that there are other options other than going to college, depending on what they want to do.

But the problem is again, most of them don’t know what they want to do.

One way to do that is to offer more career counseling and “real world” skill training in our high schools and colleges so that kids can be exposed to more career opportunities and choose their paths accordingly. You need that to bridge the gap because students are not going to do it on their own because they don’t realize how important that is yet.

Another big trap people delude themselves into thinking that once they choose a path, they can’t go back.

If you decide to start your own business after high school but realize entrepreneurship is not for you and you want to become a lawyer instead, you can always go back and get that degree.

If you graduate with a degree, but can’t get the job you want, it doesn’t mean you’re screwed. You can always develop skills and experience to get that job or you can always get that job through other means such as networking, or you can even start your own business

Or if you decide that a white collar job is not for you, and you want a more hands on experience job, you can always enroll in vocational school and become an electrician instead.

All I want to say is that a degree IS worth it, for the right reasons, and provided that you maximize your investment in college to help give you that edge that will differentiate yourself from all the other people who have the same degrees.

This includes getting experience, developing marketable and cross marketable skills, paying off as much tuition as you can so you don’t graduate with a lot of debt, making valuable networking contacts, landing internships relevant to your field, etc.

Unfortunately it is true that “the system” is set up to open more doors and higher salaries for those with degrees, but the fact remains, it’s always up to you. If you want to get in those doors and get those salaries then get that degree.

But if you want to go through a different door that doesn’t require a degree that offers the same salary or higher salary or lower salary, then go for it, because that’s the door YOU want to go through.

A college degree isn’t the only investment you can make that can open up more doors and get you more money.

There’s another investment you can always make and that’s YOU.

Develop yourself to you full potential. Learn how to sell yourself and your ideas. Be the best person you can be. Learn how to communicate, socialize, and connect with all kinds of people. Learn how to negotiate with other people. Learn how to get the information you need. Learn computer skills.

Getting through the doors you want to go through will largely be a result of these kinds of investments you make in yourself , not just having that piece of paper.

I think we need to stop instilling the idea that college is the answer to everything and instead, encourage our young ones to look within first.

Help them discover what kind of work they want to do. What kind of lifestyle they want to live. Maybe work isn’t even that important to them so much as spending time with their families.

Whatever it is, they should decide what they want to do and choose their actions accordingly, whether that’s just getting a job out of high school, going to college to get a degree, getting some vocational training, or starting their own business.

Regardless of whatever path you choose, always remember that the best investment you can make is always in yourself, because after all, it always begins and ends with YOU.

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25 Responses to “Is Getting A College Degree Worth It These Days?”

  1. Preetam Says:

    This is really a great problem…look at this!!!!!i think almost 9o% of the fresh graduates are facing this problem and wasting their youth .. the degree is ALWAYS worth it…AND U ll not find another Bill Gates or Steve Jobs in a near future…system just won’t allow..Follow the simplest roadmap..
    1. Define what u want
    2. Get into the degree
    3. From the 2nd year(preferably 1st year) mingle with the most seniors..take advice from them..let them know u r interested to work…do something without payment…do some freelace jobs …just place urself in the real world..Ur classmates will take u as a leader…which subconciously develops ur leardeship/mentorship skills
    4. Have good grades..(It really helps when someone refers a fresh graduate..)keep focused on both ur grade and profession..the bottom line is keep ur selfesteem high..
    5. Dont worry…..u r on right way..land the job and THANK ME FOR REMINDING U OF DA THINGS U ALREADY KNEW(1-4)

  2. Mike Says:

    Right on. Only go to college if you have a reason to. Then you want to learn. Instead of just dreading it. The degree only helps if it’s what you want. The one thing people say that kinda bugs me is “well, the degree certainly won’t hurt” Ha! That’s like saying a 4 year detour on a 2 hour trip “certainly won’t hurt”. What if you used that 4 years to pursue something your loved and a path that was uniquely your own. But getting the degree put that off by at least 4 years! Not to mention if someone has debt and now a wife and a mortgage and a kid on the way. With just some careful planning and some guidance they could’ve been on the path they wanted instead of “certainly” not hurting themselves
    So right on Brian! You gotta do it purposefully!
    Oh, to answer your questions about why it is hard to get into management in corporate America. It’s actually simple: the people doing the hiring are people with degrees (a lot of times MBAs). Are these people bad? No of course not. They just follow the system and say “hey, if had to get a degree to get here, by God so will this grunt”. So it’s kind of elitist too. In other words, people with degrees are better than people without (to some people). So as long as people in power keep hiring the same types the system stays the same.
    Again, back to what you said Brian, just do what you have to to do what you want.

    Thanks Brian

  3. Brian Kim Says:

    Preetam,

    Thank you for highlighting that step by step method for those who choose to pursue a college degree.

    Mike,

    Thanks for the kind words.

    You certainly bring up an interesting and valid point with your trip and detour analogy.

    With regard to the reasons you highlighted as to why it’s hard to get into management in corporate America, that’s exactly what I figured it to be but I didn’t want to believe it was for those kinds of shallow reasons. I guess that’s just how the system is.

    Thanks again for your input guys.

    Brian

  4. Is Getting A College Degree Worth It These Days? « Mybloghasnoname’s Weblog Says:

    […] read more | digg story […]

  5. Mike S Says:

    I’ve gone to a junior college off and on for almost 30 years, the times I’ve taken classes because I thought I should have not been anywhere near as enjoyable as the times when I went because I wanted to. Also my grades were better when I went because I wanted to. So your advice fits with my experience.

  6. Brian Kim Says:

    Mike S,

    Thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts. I appreciate it!

  7. Jorge Says:

    Yes it is important. It has tremendous value in accomplishing your goals. When you reveive your degree it is an indication that to some extent you have been through the college experience and what it represents. The social builidng skills, the networking, the ability to acomplish a goal,the aquired of a standard knwledge base. These are all great things.

    The catch however, is that the dergree itself will not allow you to keep the job. What helps you keep the job is the set of tools you aquire by real world experience. Those same attributes that the group claiming that it is not important to get a degree are touting.

    In my opinion, your goal shoult not be to get a job, the goal should be to be succesful, that requires a combination of a degree and also the valuable lessons taught at the University Of Life. This combination and your ability to packaged them together to become a well rounded individual is what will truly make you become succesfull.

  8. Brian Kim Says:

    Jorge,

    Very well put. You make some solid points and I couldn’t agree more.

    Thanks for sharing!

  9. Prasanna S Says:

    If this article was taken in the right spirit and sense, it would do a world of good for college graduates. Even I have an ambition to do my graduate studies in US, but the motivation was to get specialized knowledge on some field and be an expert in it.

    These days the quality of the school matters most and has direct influence on the pay scale and thats what most recruiters look for, which is missing in this article. A Stanford, CMU or UC Berkeley degree gives you a liberty to choose your dream company, but on the other hand corporates always hire BRIGHT people irrespective of their college and all it needs from the student’s side is to advertise their skills which most people fail to do.

  10. Brian Kim Says:

    Prassana S,

    Thanks for the your additional input. You make some great points, particularly the last portion of your comment.

  11. Kent K. Says:

    This article was excellent. I’m glad I accidentally to bump into it.

    I am currently in the middle of my Associates Degree because I realized that I could no longer get away with not having a degree to make my life better. The sad thing is, this is my second attempt at getting a degree. I am currently 31 years old and I told myself at age 18 that I would take some time off, explore the job market, and then figure out where I wanted to go in life. The problem with all of this is that high school doesn’t prepare you for life in the real world. You start out in a very low paying job and rarely go anywhere, or you job jump for a while to find that pefect job/person fit. I did that and then started a degree program in the Criminal Justice field. About one third of the way through I realized I didn’t want to be an officer of the law and dropped out. However, I was still sacked with the debt. So I had to pay off what I owed and that in turn pushed me back and also turned me off on re-applying. Until now.

    I know i’m extremely experienced in human resource matters, I’ve got real life experience and am really passionate about working in this field. Passion and experience alone will not get me the job or money I want. I’ve spent the last year and a half trying. So here I am, back on the degree path just so I can get a job I love. I hate the way the system is set up so much. If you can do the job, and can prove it, you should really be given a chance to succeed. Companies really need to take a chance sometimes. (go with their gut instinct) You never know when that lump of coal you passed by actually turned into a shinning diamond for someone else.

    Had I known back in high school what I know now, things would be much different. Thank you for showing me that I’m not alone in wondering if a college degree is worth it these days.

  12. Brian Kim Says:

    Kent,

    Thank you so much for the kind words and for sharing your story with us. I’m sure that a lot of people will be able to relate to it in one way or another and benefit from it.

    It’s great to see you’re on your way. It does take time, but in the end, it’s all worth it.

    I agree with you 100% that companies do really need to take a chance sometimes. The only thing is if you look at everything from their point of view, it becomes a little clearer as to why they’re so hesitant to do so.

    Regardless, it’s great to see you on your way. It looks like you’ve got everything lined up and you’re just waiting to knock it out of the park!

  13. Gail M Says:

    Thank you for your input. I too am feeling the affects of the value gap in chasing degrees. I hear about the incredible opportunities in the US, however we need to look at job availability. There simply are not enough jobs to go around whether the positions require a degree or high school diploma. I am currently seeking employment and now working on my second Masters degree. I have found two positions available that do not require engineering. The culture of the area is one of back breaking labor, the employers are not seeking education. So…I went to an interview for a secretary. During the interview the interviewer asked me if I knew that the position was only for a secretary. What is this!? Reverse education discrimination? Ah, yes. Employers are in fear to hire individuals with a college education because they are not willing to pan out the pay. Seriously, I worked as a receptionist and had three pay checks bounce, people are intimidated of the degree and what the job seeker may know or demand.

  14. Henry Says:

    Today the world is run by money-grinding-scoundrels.
    We are forced to accept increasingly crappy jobs with less pay and less perks.
    Degree or no degree that’s the reality.

    In order to raise the standard of living for the world, America’s standard of living must be significantly reduced. That’s what we’re seeing now.
    Our degrees will have about as much value as a piece of paper money - that is, a piece of paper with ink on it. What’s the tangible value of a piece of paper with ink on it?
    I suppose you could light it to start a fire and keep warm.

  15. Krysta Says:

    I went to college for 4 years and got a degree in communication. I did internships and got loads of experience, but I cannot find a job in media or journalism. I don’t regret my education, but now I am feeling like I could have spent the last four years of my life so much better. Do you have any advice for me?

  16. Stephen Says:

    I really enjoyed your article. Is it true that going to college isn’t really necessary? You see, I want to be a filmmaker, and don’t know if I should go to college or not. And do I have to be ashamed if I don’t go to college until I’m thirty? And do grades really matter anymore? Thanks.

  17. Class Says:

    Krysta,

    I have a High School diploma, yet I am in the media field. I have always been a very good writer. Even in High School I took College English.

    I am interviewing Grammy Award-winning and Grammy-nominated artists for an online publication, which get’s over 100,000 visitors a month. I don’t think the degree is what will always get you the job. It’s your passion!

    If you lack passion, life can be difficult no matter what you do.

    I think you should find out exactly what it is you really want to do. Then you need to “hook-up” with like minded people in the same profession. If you want to be a journalist, you need to find other journalists and become their friends. You need to work and collaborate together on different projects. I suggest volunteering your time to whatever “major” publication will take you — even if you don’t make a dime.

    I started out on a volunteer basis and worked my way up to senior editor. I received a huge scholarship to go to Broadcasting School, which I start in a few days. If I never volunteered my services to a “major” publication, then I never would have received the scholarship.

    I am doing what people only dream of, and yes, with just a semister of community college.

    I have passion and I love life. True, I am not in any huge debt to pay back a college either.

    I would suggest that students enroll in a community college, and then transfer to a public university. This way you will not be in a financial crisis when you graduate. Go to Fafsta for financial help. Even if you’re not an American citizen, you can still get money from the govenment if you qualify.

    To the man that thought college was just a detour: No, that’s not true. I know of a man that only took one class per semester, because he did have four children to take care of. Yes, he did finally graduate and he is the director a school now. He is making a lot of money.

    I think the problem with most “frustrated” individuals who are educated is that their mind-set doesn’t allow them to expand to see their potential. If you don’t believe in yourself, who will believe in you? You’re crutch should not be on your education, rather it should be on your spirit of excellence. Perhaps, you’ve never thought about giving it all you got and developing your passion as well as doing things with integrity and a spirit of excellence. Try it and see what happens.

    I’m off to finish another interview with another rock star from a major label.

    God Bless!

  18. Mike Says:

    Krysta, please provide link to successful website and the name of current rock start you are interviewing.

  19. Krysta Says:

    I am blogging on going green, and am interviewing a friend of mine from Open Horizons. His name is Andre Aklian. He is up and coming, and playing a lot of local events, but he has a lot of potential. You can check out my other green blog at http://greenergardenstate.wordpress.com/

    And Class, thanks for the advice. I’m trying to network now, but the industry feels so dead to me. I hope to come up with something soon, but for now I’m enjoying my youth.

  20. Stephen Says:

    I have a college degree, and yet, I don’t have a job - I mean a job that I love. I like to thank you for your MIT’s. It has given me hope, that I can accomplish anything that I put my mind to. Please, keep posting.

  21. matt Says:

    Hi Brian,

    I am a college student a Biology major, and thank you very much for writing this. I like Biology but I have no real idea what type of job I want in it. It is like what I want to do with my life changes every 5 minutes how to I deal with that? thanks.

  22. Brian Kim Says:

    Stephen,

    You’re very welcome. I’m glad you enjoy the MITs. I will definitely continue posting!

    Matt,

    Have you tried the exercises in the article?

    http://briankim.net/blog/2006/07/how-to-find-what-you-love-to-do/

    The book might be of help as well in terms of structuring the whole idea.

    http://www.briankim.net/finallyfindwhatyoulovetodo2.php

  23. Joe Says:

    I think another observation to make is that the generation telling us (I’ll be done in December, BS in Bus. Admin.-no experience, too busy going to class-totally screwed for the next 3-5 years ’til I can get exp.) to go to school is the generation that could write their own paycheck b/c they had a degree. They are the ones raising the kids with this “yester-year” mentality. I think the buck starts there: parents need to learn the importance of talking with their kids about these things instead of just, “get the degree. ‘It can’t hurt’”. I know that I will be sitting down with each of my 5 children and having VERY “open-minded” discussions about their post-high school choices.

  24. Brian Kim Says:

    You bring up a great point Joe. Times have changed and today’s parents aren’t fully aware of it. I’m glad you will be taking the initiative with your children to have open minded discussions about their future choices.

  25. John Rausch Says:

    I suggest that CNN do a story on how the education system works in Germany. Look at how they separate at about the junior high level into three different categories and where becoming a machinist, electrician, etc. or any other job that requires a lot of skill and training, but is not “book learning” is thought of as just as important as going to a university. Between colleges and two-year colleges, we have turn everything into something that requires a degree of one form or another. We have a big hangup on degrees. How many of you out there who did not go to college dread being asked where you went? It’s one of the top ten things out of most people’s mouth after being introduced. It’s not just companies that cause the overemphasis on college degrees.

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