Is College Worth the Cost? Pros & Cons of Paying for College

Facebook icon Twitter icon Print icon Email icon
Jeff White, CEPF

By Jeff White, CEPF

November 29, 2022

College is expensive, but it can be worth it for many people, giving you a high return on your investment by helping you secure high salaries and build your dream career. However, college isn’t for everyone. If you’re not pursuing a specific career path that requires school then the significant costs of going to college may simply not be worth it.

Therefore, when asking yourself if is college worth it for you, you should weigh the pros and cons of going to college against the costs. It’s also important to consider the alternatives to going to college, as well as explore the different ways you can pay for college without accumulating crippling student debt.

One way to lower the overall costs of going to college is by opening a 529 plan and making regular investments into your future before you ever have to pay for school.

How Much College Costs

College has long been expensive, but this is a more pressing concern than ever before. The cost of going to college increased by more than 150% over the last 40 years and is predicted to continue to increase at accelerated rates into the future.

College tuition and fees form a big part of the cost of going to college, but they’re not the full picture. When weighing up whether college is worth it, it’s important to consider the total cost of attendance (COA), which includes:

If enrolling in college in 2023, you can expect your four-year undergraduate degree to cost you between $110,000 and around $240,000, depending on the type of school you attend. Graduate and advanced degrees typically cost less, though they can add to the total cost of your college education.

That’s before you add on interest from student loans. Loan repayments can increase your overall costs, even double the total amount you’ll pay for college.

On the other hand, investment dividends and tax benefits from savings plans can be highly advantageous, effectively reducing the amount you pay for college

Total Cost of US College Degrees in 2023

Public Universities (in-state students)
Public Universities (in-state students)
Private Universities
Four-year undergraduate degree
Two-year degree

What’s more, these costs are set to increase in the future, though you can offset them through scholarships, grants, and savings. You can calculate how much you’ll need to pay for college using our college savings calculator.

Reasons College Is Worth the Cost

Despite the high costs associated with going to college, it can be worth it for many people. You may very well find that your investment pays off in the long run, by allowing you to build a well-paid, successful career. Not to mention the invaluable life experience and connections you gain at school.

1. College Graduates Usually Make More Money

Overall, college graduates with a minimum of an undergraduate degree earn significantly more than employees with a high school diploma only. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, graduates with a bachelor’s degree or higher had median usual weekly earnings of $1,556 when working full-time, compared to just $866 for high school graduates with no college studies. In this way, a college degree can almost double your earning potential.

As you progress up the career ladder, you’ll be able to use your growing work experience to secure even better-paid positions, all built on the basis of your college education. In this way, paying for college is an investment in your future, and you can expect to see a significant return on that investment that could add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of your career.

2. Many Careers Require a College Degree

Not only can a college degree help you get a better job, but it’s also a minimum requirement for many career paths. If you want to secure virtually any professional position, whether, in business, social services, finance, or IT, you’ll need some kind of tertiary qualification. For some roles, you’ll only be considered if you have a relevant graduate or professional degree.

With more and more employers looking for candidates with a college education, it will be harder than ever to be competitive in the job market in the future if you don’t have at least an undergraduate degree. In this way, for many people, a college education is worth the cost. 

3. You Get Access to a Network of Possibilities

Going to college gives you much more than a piece of paper. Notably, you’ll meet a wide range of specialists and future professionals in your field, from your fellow students to your tutors and professors. In many industries, who you know is as important as what you know, and building your network through college can be extremely helpful in launching your career.

The connections you make at college can put you in touch with career opportunities, give you essential career advice, or provide valuable professional references. They could turn out to be future mentors, clients, suppliers, or business partners. Furthermore, at college, you’ll likely get access to career centers, job fairs, professional clubs, volunteer opportunities, and guidance counselors, all of which can help you to launch your career.

Reasons College Isn’t Worth the Cost

Although college can be advantageous in a range of ways, it also comes with certain drawbacks that can mean it’s simply not worth the cost for some people.

1. You May Not Need a Degree for Your Chosen Career

While many modern jobs require a degree, this is not the case for all career paths. For example, you can pursue a career in most trades with a qualification from a technical college and/or an apprenticeship. You can pursue other professions with a qualification from a community college, including many health care positions, from dental hygienist to registered nurse. 

Other roles don’t need any kind of qualification and allow you to build experience on the job. If your chosen career doesn’t need a college education, you would be better off saving on the cost and jumping straight into work.

2. You May Not Graduate if Your Heart Isn’t Into it

It’s pretty common for high school graduates to sign up for college degrees they’re not interested in because of pressure from their parents, guidance counselors, or peers. If you aren’t really motivated, you’ll likely find college a hard grind, underperform, and may drop out before you finish your degree.

However, by the time you drop out, you may have already racked up significant costs in tuition, room and board, as well as other expenses. Although you’ll still gain experience, knowledge, and connections from your time at college, without qualification to show for it, it probably won’t be worth the investment of money, not to mention time.

3. College Is Expensive

College is very expensive, especially when you consider not just tuition and fees, but the total cost of attendance. If you don’t have a savings plan, financial aid, or other resources to draw on, you could be paying back the cost of your college education for a long time.

If you take out student loans, you’ll likely carry this debt for 10 to 30 years, even if you get a good job after graduation. One survey found that the average graduate took more than 20 years to pay off their student debt.

You should also keep in mind that it may take you longer than four years to complete your undergraduate degree, so costs may be even higher than you anticipate.

Therefore, it’s important to weigh up the cost of college against the benefits you’re likely to receive and compare this to possible alternatives.

Alternatives to Going to College

While the advantages of college can make it worthwhile for many people, it’s not for everyone. Depending on your interests, personality, and future ambitions, these alternatives may be a better option for you:

  • Trade school: Trade schools are vocational colleges that will give you hands-on training in a range of technical areas, such as plumbing, electrical, carpentry, or car mechanics. They’re significantly more affordable than college, typically shorter, and could be a much better fit if you like to work with their hands. Most trade school courses last between six months and two years and cost between $3,674 and $15,923 to complete.
  • Community College: A community college can allow you to gain a degree at a much lower cost than a four-year university. If you choose a community college in your district, you can expect to pay around $10,000 to $20,000 a year and gain a certificate or associate’s degree that will open doors to a range of careers, such as a registered nurse, radiation therapist, dental hygienist, or computer programmer.
  • Take online courses: Another way to build your skills and knowledge is through short-term courses offered by universities or MOOC (massive open online course) platforms. Although not as valuable in the job market as a formal degree, they can be a great way to supplement your work experience and demonstrate your commitment to professional development.
  • Start to work: You may not need any kind of qualification at all to pursue your chosen career. If studying is not for you, you could choose a field that doesn’t need a degree, such as entry-level roles in administration and marketing, or professions such as scuba diving or real estate.
  • Become an entrepreneur: Another alternative to study is to launch your own business, especially if you’re prepared to take on this responsibility, put in the hard work, and have a winning idea. Of course, a college education is highly valuable for anyone who runs their own business, but you may be able to go to school, later on, funded by the proceeds of your business.

Ways to Pay for College to Make it Worth it

If you’ve weighed up the pros and cons of going to college and have decided it’s worth it for you, there are a few ways you can make it more affordable and avoid crippling student debt. It is possible to reduce the amount you’ll need to pay for college, and even go to college for free. Here are some ways you can cut costs and pay for college. 

Saving for College With a 529 Plan

529 savings plans and tax-advantaged savings accounts allow you to contribute funds that will be invested on your behalf and later withdraw it to pay for your college tuition and expenses. Therefore, your initial investment can grow over time, meaning that you effectively pay less for college in the end. Additionally, 529 plans have a number of tax advantages and can save you on your federal and state taxes.

It’s best to start contributing to 529 plans as early as possible to get the maximum benefits. Some parents start these accounts when their children are babies, or even before they are born. However, it’s never too late to start saving for college, and you can start a 529 savings plan at any time and keep withdrawing funds until you graduate.

Get Scholarships and Grants

Don’t overlook the value of scholarships and grants, both of which can be extremely helpful in allowing you to pay for college. By submitting a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), you’ll be considered for a range of needs-based aid from the federal and state governments, as well as many colleges. The FAFSA deadline is 30 June each year, but opens in October, so it’s a good idea to put your application in as soon as possible.

A number of schools and organizations also offer merit-based scholarships, based on academic performance, talent in sports, music, or other fields, as well as certain demographics. It’s also important to fill out the FAFSA in order to be eligible for scholarships, as many colleges use this as a basis for awards. You should also do your research and identify private scholarships, and put in applications for those you qualify for.

Work While in School

Traditionally, working was seen as a way to pay for college, and this may be how your parents got their degrees. However, it can be risky to try to work your way through school. Rising college costs have long outpaced minimum wage, and trying to hold down a full-time job could detract from your studies and harm your performance. After all, you don’t want the degree you’ve worked so hard for to become less valuable because of your poor grades!

Therefore, it’s arguably better to use work as a supplemental way to pay for your college education, along with other approaches such as savings plans and financial aid. The ⅓ rule can be a good balance: aim to cover one-third of your college expenses through savings, one-third through current income, and one-third through loans or grants.

Who Should Go to College?

College is the right choice for anyone who wants to pursue a career path where a formal degree is either a mandatory requirement or highly advantageous. This applies to the majority of professional occupations, from medicine to law and engineering to teaching, where you’ll need an undergraduate degree and in some cases a master’s or doctorate to even be considered by recruiters.

Additionally, you should consider going to college if you want to become an entrepreneur, as the skills and knowledge you’ll gain, and most importantly the connections you’ll make could be invaluable in helping you to launch your business.

Before you decide to go to college, it’s also important to consider whether you are motivated and committed enough to see the course through to the end. Finally, it’s important to have a strong financial plan in place, preferably covering a range of funding sources, such as savings plans, financial aid, and work/study programs.

The Bottom Line

So, is college worth it? If you want to pursue a career in a field that doesn’t require a degree or are not really motivated to study, then the significant costs of going to college may not be worth it for you.

However, if you’re passionate about a professional career path that requires a college education and you can reduce student loan borrowing costs through scholarships, grants, work, or savings plans, then a college education could be a valuable investment that more than pays for itself in the long run.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Do the benefits of college still outweigh the costs?

The answer to this question will depend on your own interests, motivations, and career goals, as well as how reliant you are on student loans. However, if you can leverage savings and/or grants or scholarships to cover some of your college costs, and are interested in a career that requires a college degree, this investment will be well worth your while. 

Are college graduates happier?

Official figures show that college graduates earn more on average than people with high school education, and research suggests that they may be happier as well. One survey found that 94% of respondents with a bachelor’s degree or higher reported being happy or very happy with their lives, compared to only 89% of high school graduates.

How do you decide if you should go to college?

The decision of whether to go to college will largely come down to your career and life goals. 

Your financial position may also play a role here, as if you need to take out significant student loans that will burden you with debt for decades to come, it may not be worth it.

How can I apply for financial aid for college?

The first step for applying for college is to submit the FAFSA form, which will qualify you for federal student aid including grants, subsidized student loans, and work-study options. Many schools and states use the information you provide on the FAFSA to offer additional aid.

Is online college cheaper than studying on campus?

In most cases, the tuition for online courses is comparable to studying on campus. However, by studying remotely, you could save on other costs, such as room and board, transportation, and living expenses.

A good place to start:

See the best 529 plans, personalized for you