Discussing the Merits of College for Everyone

The following is a guest post from  Squirrelers reader “The Bean Man”. My Editor’s Comments will follow.

I’m an avid reader of Squirrelers.  And over the last few months my conversations with a co-worker have altered my thought process on one way to best prepare for the future – don’t get a college degree.

Throughout this past year, my co-worker has been updating me on his daughter’s college selection process. As a family they have evaluated over 12 public universities (in state and out of state) ranging from Colorado to University of Wisconsin. I was literally shocked to hear how much tuition is at each of the schools! However, being a bright student it was likely that she would end up with at least a partial scholarship to help offset costs. However, in the end her total annual tuition with scholarship funding still costs > $30K!

The thing that surprised me most about my conversations with my co-worker is how much a typical college education has risen since I went to school. A college education has almost been considered a given right for anybody in the middle class or above. But I wondered – is this about to change?

According to the US Dept of Education, the average annual cost of tuition and living expenses has risen from $7,600 in 1990 to $20,400 (in 2010 dollars). On the surface it appears worth it because the difference in annual salary between high school graduates and college graduates is approximately $20K. These numbers suggest that the payback time of a college education is 4 years ($80K total college expense / $20K annual salary differential). However, I feel that this is misleading at best and it may be better not to attend college at all.

1) The average salary of non-college educated people ($22K) is weighed down by minimum wage workers. $22K equates to under $11 per hour – barely above minimum wage. What would the average wage be if one only looked at the segment of workers who had the ability to go to college but chose not. This segment would include skilled trades such as carpenters, welders, chefs, seamstresses, small business owners, etc. Surely this group is making more than $11 per hour! I would go further to say that many in this group are earning much more than the average college graduate wage of $22 per hour.

2) The debt burden of the average college graduate is on average $24K – taking years to pay off. Imagine the debt levels of those graduates hat don’t have parents to fund the costs? Those without college debt are free to invest their savings quicker and accumulate wealth faster.

3) With unemployment at 9% many freshly minted college graduates are floating sideways at best. While the same can be said of non-college graduates, at least they haven’t accrued tens of thousands of dollars in debt and given up four years of productivity.

I know that many will disagree with my thoughts on whether college makes sense. However, one thing we can probably all agree on is that a college education is no longer the slam dunk decision most of us have considered a right.

Editor’s Comments: What do you think of the guest poster’s premise? Personally, I am in the camp that thinks college should be a goal for just about everybody, and that a college degree is now what a high school diploma was a generation ago. That being said, I agree with The Bean Man’s theme of college being expensive and potentially a big source of debt that takes a long time to pay off.  Accordingly, I think prospective students and parents need to be sure not to make a decision that creates a massive financial burden for years to come, and instead choose wisely and consider ROI.


  1. says

    I am actually going to agree with the poster! At least for me, my profession has nothing to do with my degree! Plus college costs are out of control. Do you know the rate is more than that of health care costs? That’s ridiculous!

    Plus cheap tricks by the publishing houses by changing page numbers so you would always buy new text books… This is going to be the next bubble.

  2. Sarah says

    I admit I am currently in college, however I attend part time as a non traditional student.I only decided to go to college since I have seven years expericnce in my job field, and have also worked outside the country. At this point a degree just helps to add to my list of qualifacations since I already have the experience.

  3. says

    College is not for everyone! There are lots of good careers that do not require a college degree. In Los Angeles, there is a real need for union electricians. The problem it requires minimum math skills! Students who are good in math want to become engineers or something similar. A union electrician will earn more than a college graduate as a journeyman electrician. This can be achieved in 4-5 years from start to finish without debt and receive pay along the way. They can become an electrical contractor and do very well. This is just one example.

  4. says

    My husband does not have a degree, and he has a career (apprentice/journeyman program in trades) His base wages are $50000/annual before taxes (not including overtime). My brother dropped out of college, and became a plumber. My other brother dropped out of college and started his own (very successful) tech company. I dropped out of college and just started my own company; previously, I worked my way up a management position.

    Think about people you hire for services all the time – mechanics, plumbers, builders, electricians, CDL drivers. White collar jobs, too- commissioned salespeople, admin assistants, tech support and help, artisans. Good livings, no degree required.

    It has been my experience that a college degree isn’t necessary, but drive and training IS (i.e., apprenticeships, vocational, etc.)

  5. says

    I suppose a Bachelor degree is no longer the slam dunk that it was, but I think it’s still necessary for the future. Sure you can get a good job with no college degree, but are you limiting your potential? With a college degree, you have many more options and I think it is worth the money. There are many way to save money like going to a community college for two years and transfer. In the future, we will need more college grads, not less.

  6. says

    Some people just aren’t college material, and that’s okay! I know my son fits in that category (trust me), and so I am actually steering him away from higher education and toward a vocation that he loves doing.

    There are countless examples of people who decide to bypass a college degree but still manage to make a very comfortable living! In contrast, I know lots of people with college degrees who are in debt and struggling to make ends meet.

    All the best,

    Len Penzo dot Com

  7. says

    I disagree with the guest poster — college is a fantastic investment. College grads earn, on average, far more than high school grads. Even if your post-college job doesn’t “technically” require you to have a degree (I’m a freelance writer and my boyfriend is a small business owner; neither role requires a degree) you will still benefit greatly from the skills you learn in college: critical thinking, analysis, writing, etc.

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