Today’s college students are paying an average of 12 times more than what students paid in 1978. Nonetheless, the Pew Research Center recently reported that working college graduates make $17,500 more than non-graduates each year. Knowing these disparate figures, how are prospective students to make an educated decision about whether or not going into debt for college is “worth it?”

Is College Worth It?

Anyone questioning the value of a college degree should first ask, “What do I want to get out of college?” If financial return on your investment is your primary motivating factor, the research firm PayScale has compiled a chart analyzing the financial pay-off for various degrees at 900 American universities. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics website also provides extensive information about the economic prospects of different occupations and the degrees necessary to obtain them. Beyond deciding that you want to choose a lucrative major, you need to assess whether or not you are up to the challenge; about 46 percent of students fail to graduate within six years. If your intention is to study something that you are passionate about and have new experiences that will increase your social and economic opportunities, college is probably worth the cost; you’ll just need to decide which college is the best fit for you and your budget.

How Much is Too Much?

As a general rule, private institutions cost more than public ones, and higher prestige comes with a higher price tag. However, because many colleges offer financial aid to incoming students, the college with the lowest tuition isn’t always the cheapest option. Online classes are usually cheaper than face-to-face ones, but learning from home can cost you something invaluable: the opportunity to network and meet people who can help you professionally and socially. Virtually all students qualify for government grants and loans, but borrowers should be aware that student debt cannot be discharged through bankruptcy. Carefully research which types of free assistance is available to you and make sure you have a thorough understanding of how much your loan payments will be before you sign any paperwork. Once you know the true cost of college for you, it is up for to you decide if that amount is worth the potential payoff.

What is the Pay-off?

The rewards of college cannot just be measured economically. Anyone who met their spouse or best friend at college will have a hard time saying that the experience wasn’t worth it, and many people get their first post-college jobs through connections they make in classes. Additionally, universities often offer extracurricular opportunities that allow students to learn new skills for free. In this light, applying a traditional cost-benefit analysis to a college degree becomes complicated. The experience is worth what you make of it, so take advantage of as many opportunities as you can to get the fullest return on your investment.

The value of education is truly priceless; all of the knowledge you obtain, the people you meet and the accolades you achieve will benefit your life in one way or another. That said, colleges and universities are not for everyone. If money is your top concern, you may want to try your luck in the workforce before placing bets on college. If you have any doubts about your willingness to commit to several years of rigorous study, then you should definitely not go to college. If you are a good student and want to broaden your opportunities in life, financially and otherwise, then college may be worth the gamble.

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