With tuition continuing to escalate and academic competition among applicants ever-tightening, parents and students are logically asking, Is college worth it?
The answer, simply stated, is, Yes.
Higher education is one of the most important—and sometimes confusing—endeavors for families, who must, as they navigate its rocky course, weigh competing imperatives, take into account a range of different circumstances, and make numerous critical decisions. What follows is an examination of some of the most significant of these factors and decision points.
WHY COLLEGE IS IMPORTANT
The statistics speak for themselves: Americans value college more than ever. As of 2021, 37.9 percent of Americans aged 25 or older had a bachelor’s degree, up from 30.4 percent in 2011. This emphasis on higher education isn’t limited to four-year colleges. By 2021, an additional 10.5 percent of 25 or older Americans had an associate’s degree (Pew Research).
The increase in Americans with higher-education degrees makes economic sense: There is a significant wage gap between people who graduate from college and those who don’t. In 2021, full-time workers aged 22 to 27 with a bachelor’s degree earned a median annual wage of $52,000, whereas full-time workers in the same age group with a high school diploma and no college degree made only $30,000 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). That gap has steadily become more pronounced: In 1990, it was only $48,481 versus $35,257. Furthermore, as of February 2020—before the COVID pandemic temporarily skewed the numbers—the unemployment rate was lower among the college-educated:1.9 percent versus 3.1 percent.
A study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce perhaps most clearly illuminates the matter. At the time of the study in 2002, someone with only a high school diploma earned an average of $1.3 million over the course of their lifetime, whereas a college graduate made an average of $2.3 million. By any definition, that’s a worthwhile investment and one that—as the wage gap between those with bachelor’s degrees and those without has broadened—has likely become only more valuable. As Pew states, “Having a bachelor’s degree remains an important advantage in many sectors of the U.S. labor market. College graduates generally out-earn those who have not attended college, and they are more likely to be employed in the first place.”
The message is clear. Among other outcomes, college can pave the way for:
- More job options
- More job stability
- Higher earning potential
- Better physical health, as studies indicate that college graduates are more inclined to focus on self-care such as exercising and eating a nutritious diet
- Stronger and more varied networking communities
- Lifelong learning behaviors
- Successful entrepreneurial endeavors
- Increased ability to shift industries
- Enhanced job satisfaction.
DEVELOPING A SMART APPROACH
At the same time, Pew states, “Many Americans say they cannot afford to get a four-year degree—or that they just don’t want to.” The key, then, is to make college more financially feasible for prospective students. So, how can college begin to feel like a viable option for those who enter the process skeptically or tentatively?
In my capacity as founder and managing partner of the national college prep company HelloCollege, I’ve found that careful planning focused on individually tailored outcomes provides the necessary clarity. Ideally, this planning begins early in high school, with guidance from the school’s college counseling office and, in some cases, a private college prep company. Among the first steps is to develop a list of potential colleges. Or, as I’ve written elsewhere: “When we meet with a new family, one of our first questions is, ‘Which sandbox are we going to play in?’ In other words, our initial goal is to determine what type of college list best suits the family’s goals and needs. That lays the groundwork for the entire application process.”
A student’s initial list should have three tiers: low-risk, middle-risk, and high-risk schools. For example, if a student is applying to 10 schools, four should be low-risk (safety schools), four should be middle-risk (targets), and two should be high-risk (reaches):
- Low-risk schools. With these institutions, a student has the highest acceptance odds with the least work. Many of these colleges have straightforward admission requirements, often just the submission of a student’s grades and standardized test scores. Low-risk colleges and universities also serve financially minded families: a student applying to a school where most students have less impressive résumés is more likely to receive offers of merit-based aid.
- Middle-risk schools. Here, the admission requirements are often a bit more stringent than at low-risk schools, but the chances of being accepted remain good in many cases, and the potential for merit-based financial aid remains strong.
- High-risk schools. This category has the lowest acceptance percentage and the least potential for merit-based aid. The student also has to go through a rigorous application process that requires extra work and a greater time commitment. High-risk schools require students to produce stronger résumés and more and better essays and may even require an interview. Most importantly, students need to differentiate themselves from other high-fliers. Much of our work with a student at HelloCollege is dedicated to helping them first determine and then cultivate what we call their “Stand-Out Factor”—those qualities that allow a student to emerge from and remain differentiated amidst the crowded candidate field.
IDENTIFYING IDEAL COLLEGES
It’s important to note that those aforementioned tiers are relative. One student’s high-risk list is another’s middle-risk list. Likewise, the ideal college for one student might be a poor fit for another. There are four main criteria students should consider when identifying potential colleges—what we at HelloCollege call our S.A.F.E. approach: Social fit, Academic fit, Financial fit, and Employment fit. Here are some factors to consider when evaluating each category:
- Student demographics. Some students might be guided in their decision-making process by the demographics of an institution. For instance, do they have a particular political bent, certain religious convictions, or specific gender-related preferences? There are schools that match the characteristics of almost any type of individual, such as Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU), Hispanic-serving institutions (HSI), women’s colleges, and Catholic colleges and universities.
- The school’s location. Does the student want to commute from home, or would they prefer to go to a college far from where they grew up? I’ve written elsewhere about an experience with one Chicago-area student: “She initially wanted to go to school in California, and we told her, ‘Before you eliminate the rest of the country, do a trip.’ After the long flight to California, picking up the rental car, and then battling L.A. traffic en route to the hotel, she was in tears and said to her mom, ‘I can’t go to school in California.’”
- School size. Visiting schools of various sizes will help students get a feel for the environment that is most comfortable for them. Larger schools may offer more resources (such as higher caliber lab equipment or more extensive library holdings) or more specialized educational opportunities (such as obscure majors or opportunities for graduate-level coursework), but smaller schools may provide superior teaching or more unconventional curricula (such as those at Antioch, Deep Springs, or St. John’s Colleges).
- Student-to-faculty ratio. Some students flourish in a larger classroom; others in a smaller setting. For students who might lack experience with a range of classroom sizes to evaluate their preference, they should ask themselves, “Do I prefer lectures or conversation-based classes?”—the latter usually only being available with smaller class sizes—and, “How important is it to me that I have a personal relationship with my teachers?”
- Extracurriculars. Activities, clubs, sports, Greek life, study abroad programs, and service opportunities can all also be important parts of the college experience. Extracurriculars offer leadership opportunities and collaborative social environments that will prepare students for the practical realities of life after college.
- The college’s strength in the student’s major. If, for instance, the student wants to be a nurse, but the college lacks a top-notch nursing program, they might be better served elsewhere. Some departments may lack a given area of specialization: a student who wants to study Black authors, for example, might be blindsided to learn that a school’s English department lacks a faculty member dedicated to studying African American literature.
- Academic rigor. Highly selective schools aren’t for everyone. It’s key to find a school whose academics match the student’s abilities and aspirations. If a highly selective school doesn’t seem to be the right route, students don’t need to burden themselves with a heavy course load of high school AP classes.
Increasingly, financial concerns are the main sticking point for many families: they deter students from pursuing higher education in the first place, or they hobble students following graduation, in the form of massive student loans. “There’s no question that compared to previous generations, colleges are charging today’s students more for higher education,” Brianna McGurran writes in a 2022 Forbes article. “Between 1980 and 2020, the average price of tuition, fees, and room and board for an undergraduate degree increased 169%.” Some issues to consider include:
- Need-based and merit-based aid practices. Research each school’s financial aid policies and practices. Boston College, for example, is tight with merit-based aid, regardless of the student’s accomplishments in high school. Research, also, the average student loan debt for graduates of a particular school; that’s a good indicator of whether the university is generous with financial aid. Keep in mind that most colleges meet some percent of demonstrated student need, but exactly how much varies widely. An expensive private school that meets 100 percent of demonstrated student need is likely cheaper in practice for a student of limited means than a seemingly cheaper state university that provides limited financial aid
- Four-year graduation rate. This is an easy-to-overlook statistic, but if a college has a low four-year graduation rate, it means families faces greater odds of having to pay for a fifth year—a 25 percent overall increase in cost!
- Scholarships. Consider both scholarships awarded by specific colleges and universities and private scholarships. A plethora of outside scholarships are available in a seemingly endless number of categories. These scholarships aren’t tied to any particular school, but they can be extremely useful; some industrious students have been able to pay off large chunks of their tuition with this money. Websites such as Scholly and Fastweb have extensive listings, and high school college counseling offices can help with identifying scholarships from local organizations.
- Career services. Does the school have a well-staffed, active career services office? If so, the student will be better prepared to enter the working world.
- Internships. Some schools are better at finding internships for their students than others. Due in part to a vibrant networking community of graduates, Northwestern University, for example, offers numerous internship opportunities in virtually every field. Such internships can pave the way for fulfilling post-graduation careers.
- The student’s major. What is the career outlook at a college in the student’s major? If the numbers and anecdotal evidence indicate the outlook is solid, the school is worth a close look.
- Graduate school. Not every student aspires to directly enter the workforce; some plan to attend graduate school—and some schools are better than others at preparing their students for post-graduate education. Knox College is an example of a school that excels in this regard. It possesses an alumni network and faculty counseling that help students make wise and productive choices about graduate school.
Once a student has homed in on the right target schools, the application process begins in earnest. Among the key undertakings here:
- Standardized tests. The SAT and ACT, often taken junior year of high school, are multiple-choice tests designed to gauge a student’s readiness for the rigors of college-level work in reading, writing, and math. While once a key part of the application process, the SAT and ACT have diminished in importance. Many schools have made these tests optional, and the University of California system has eliminated them altogether. This trend began during the COVID pandemic, when many students were unable to take the exams.
- Applications. The Common Application, or “Common App,” is the most frequently used way students apply to college. Because it is accepted by more than 900 schools, the Common App allows students to fill out only one application while also applying to a range of institutions. Through the Common App, students upload transcripts, admission essays, letters of recommendation, and other materials to the schools to which they’re applying. Similarly, the ostensibly more “holistic” Coalition Application is accepted by more than 150 institutions. The application deadlines for most colleges are in November and December of senior year; some schools, such as the University of Iowa, have “rolling admissions,” meaning they accept applications year round, until all their slots are filled.
- Admissions essays. As standardized tests have become less crucial, admissions essays have grown in stature. They present an opportunity for students to put a “human face” on their applications, differentiating themselves from other applicants in a meaningful way. The primary essay—which is called a “personal statement” and is sent, in most cases, to every school—is a storytelling exercise that illustrates those qualities of the student that will enable them to flourish in college and beyond. Most schools also require at least a couple supplemental essays, often featuring questions like “Why this major?” or “Why this college?” which are specific to that institution and which tend to be more straightforward.
- Letters of recommendation. Like essays, letters of recommendation humanize an applicant. Often, letters of recommendation are written by a high school mentor, such as a teacher, a sports coach, or a faculty advisor for an extracurricular activity. But, letters of recommendation can also come from non-academic sources, such as an employer or a supervisor at a service organization. Letters of recommendation can go a long way in showing admissions offices why a student would excel in a college environment.
THE BOTTOM LINE
For all the difficulties associated with today’s college landscape, a degree remains extremely valuable. The key is to approach the process shrewdly, so that a student can gain everything possible from the college experience, both during it and afterward.
As an article on Northeastern University’s website aptly puts it, “While earning a bachelor’s degree is a big commitment, the rewards are plentiful and within your reach. A brighter economic future, more career possibilities, and a greater sense of personal fulfillment are all possible with the acquisition of a bachelor’s degree.”