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Is College Worth It

Here are two words that strike terror in the hearts of any parents struggling to pay college tuition bills: Drama major! With student debt loads exceeding $1 trillion and youth unemployment levels off the charts, parents and students are asking themselves whether the return from a college degree is really worth the investment?

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Is College Worth the Money?

In 2013, average annual tuition rates for private and public universities clocked in at $29,056 and $21,706, respectively, according to the data compiled by the College Board. Seeking a higher education, used to be a given. No more. Many people are now wondering, “Should I go to college or should I find a job instead?” Much of it depends on how soon—and whether—you finish, what school you go to, on how marketable your degree truly is.

Be Honest about Your Academic Chops

Put aside the flashy college brochures and ask yourself this: Do I really have what it takes to tackle the academic load at four-year colleges? The grim truth is that many students don’t; college may not be for everyone. Only 56 percent of enrolled students finish a four-year degree within six years and 29% manage to complete two-year degrees within three years, according to a study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2011.

The biggest reasons for dropping out: students were not up to the rigors of academic work or underestimated the time demands of juggling jobs and family. Others faced financial difficulties. So if you want college to be worth it for you, make sure you are ready to succeed at a quality university program. Otherwise, consider a community college or occupational certificate that will prepare you for a career as an electrician, construction manager, dental associate, paralegal or healthcare technician. Here’s a useful list of the fastest growing job markets in coming years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Also, consider this: According to the Harvard study, “27 percent of people with post-secondary licenses or certificates—credentials short of an associate’s degree—earn more than the average bachelor’s degree recipient.” So, depending on your situation and interests, you may be far better off steering clear of a four-year program, where you might fail and be saddled with massive student debts with nothing to show for it.

Not All Majors are Equal

Is College Worth It

If theology is your passion, that’s great, but understand that your earnings potential is less than divine. Does it make sense to pay $200,000-plus for a degree at the Yale Divinity School or attend a far cheaper, though less prestigious, school? From a purely financial point of view, majors really do matter. Employers will pay top dollar for talented students with degrees in engineering, computer science, chemistry and math. If you happen to be a petrochemical engineer student, you can look forward to a starting salary of about $93,500, according to a piece in the Wall Street Journal.

Related Article: 5 College Degrees That Pay Off the Most

Don’t Let Emotions Color Your School Choice

Is College Worth It

Choosing schools is tough and often influenced by intangibles like the look of the campus, the quality of a sports program, or the fact that everyone in your family went there. Nothing wrong with that, but universities have very different track records when it comes to return on investment. If you choose a school solely based on these qualities, you may not be getting your worth.

Former Education Secretary William Bennett has a new, controversial book out called, “Is College Worth It?”  He claims that only 150 of 3,500 U.S. colleges are worth the investment and the debt that you may incur.  (Not everyone agrees with his findings.) You may disagree with his conclusion, but he stresses that it is worthwhile for students and parents to look at schools in cold, hard financial terms.

If you agree, a good place to start is payscale.com, which has put together an informative online ranking of U.S. universities by return on investment. Generally speaking, the more selective the school, the better chance of a better financial outcome after you graduation. Good hunting.

Related Article: The Top Ten Community Colleges in the Country

Photo Credit: © iStock.com/michaeljung, © iStock.com/Terry Wilson, © iStock.com/Terry Wilson

Xavier Burns

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