Is College Worth It? A Few Things to Consider

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Are you thinking about enrolling in a college degree program? Perhaps you’re a high school student who is staring hard into life’s crystal ball and you’re wondering if college is the right path. Or maybe you’ve been in the workforce for a number of years and you are considering earning that degree you always meant to finish to make yourself more marketable.

Whatever your current situation is, there’s one big question that keeps nagging you…

Is College Worth It?

If you are unsure of whether college makes sense anymore, you aren’t alone. You definitely have reason to question whether it’s even worth earning a degree considering how much it costs these days.

Did you know:

  • The total amount of combined student loan debt in the United States is $1.5 trillion.
  • The average amount of student loan debt upon graduation per student is $34,000.
  • Student loan defaults are at an all-time high.

Those are some pretty sobering statistics, don’t you think?

If it seems like the cost of earning a college degree keeps going up as each year passes, it isn’t your imagination. The cost is increasing at a staggering pace that is even higher than the annual increase in medical care.

What’s a person to do?

A Student Loan Can Destroy Your Life

While taking out a student loan to fund your education may sound like a great idea, it can really come back to haunt you if you’re not careful. If you’re taking out a large loan to fund a degree in a field of study that isn’t in demand, for example, you may have trouble landing work after graduating and not be able to make the monthly payments on your loan.

Another thing to consider is having a large student loan when you graduate may prevent you from buying a home. One of the things lending institutions consider when evaluating you for a home loan is something called the debt-to-income ratio. In layman’s terms, this is a calculation that is used to determine whether you earn enough money to make all of your monthly loan payments.

Because of this, a student loan could be the one thing that prevents you from qualifying for a home loan. And to make matters even worse, it currently isn’t possible to include a student loan in a bankruptcy. If you take out a student loan, you’re essentially stuck with it until you pay it off or you die.

Although there are some programs where you can have your student loans forgiven, they aren’t for everyone because they have stringent requirements you have to meet to qualify.

And to add insult to injury, if you default on a student loan, the government can (and probably will) garnish your wages. The government can take up to 15 percent of your income to pay down your debt each time you get paid. If you earn $3,000 a month, that’s $450 – not a small sum of money.

Related: The 30 Best Summer Jobs for College Students

Things Have Changed

Most who consider earning a college degree want to do it for employment purposes. Nearly everyone has heard about the statistic that says those who have college degrees earn more in their lifetimes. And it does seem like all of the good paying jobs do go to those who have degrees.

But you have to dig a little deeper to get the whole story.

As recently as a few decades ago, a person could earn a college degree in just about anything and end up doing well in life. But that’s not the case anymore.

What happened?

The main problem is increasingly more and more people are earning college degrees. Thanks to a major push by the federal government to encourage more people to attend college and easy access to money to pay for college in the form of student loans, a much higher percentage of people are now college graduates.

Isn’t that a good thing?

Not necessarily. It’s important to keep in mind that a college degree is a signaling device to employers. It tells them you have completed a formal course of study in something in school. Traditionally, job seekers have used their college degrees to stand out from the pack when applying for jobs.

But what happens if everyone has a college degree?

When everyone has a college degree, the value of having a degree goes down. There are some who even say the bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma because they are now so common. To stand out in a crowded job market, many are now having to earn graduate degrees or professional certifications to make them more marketable.

Your Major Matters

Complicating the situation is the fact that there are many college majors that don’t lead to much in the job market.

I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve seen someone earn a bachelor’s degree in something and then end up working in a field that is completely different from their major. It happens all the time. I’ll bet you can think of few a people who have done that, too.

Even worse, there are many who take on substantial debt to earn their college degrees and then end up working jobs that don’t even require degrees. Ouch! Here are just a few situations that I personally know of:

  • The museum studies major who ended up working in the gift wrapping department of a big box store.
  • The business major who ended up working as a front desk receptionist.
  • The sociology major who ended up working at a call center.
  • The leadership major who ended up working in a stockroom.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Do you see the problem?

Now, I’m certainly not saying there’s anything wrong with these jobs. I believe that ALL work is honorable, regardless of what it is that you do.

The problem is none of these jobs require college degrees and there are college graduates working in them. And there’s a good chance that those degree holders are making student loan payments, too.

Have a Plan

So, does that mean college is a waste of time?

Not necessarily.

I still firmly believe that earning a college degree is a good thing – but you have to be strategic about it. You have to be very careful about what you major in, and you also have to avoid going deep in debt to fund your degree.

The best way to approach college is to start your academic journey prepared. In other words, you need to do your homework before enrolling.

Choose Your Major Well

First, what should you major in?

When considering your major, it’s vitally important to consider the job opportunities that await you after you graduate. If you can’t think of a career or you are unsure of the job market for your chosen major, you may want to consider studying something else.

Another thing to consider when selecting your major is whether to go wide or deep. In other words, should you choose something broad or specialize?

If you choose to go wide, for example, you might earn a degree in business administration, which is a general degree that covers a variety of business disciplines including accounting, finance, marketing, human resources, and others.

The problem with a broad degree is that it makes you a general practitioner, and many employers these days like to hire specialists. So instead of majoring in business administration, for example, you might choose to major in accounting and work as an accountant. Or you could major in finance and work in the banking industry. And so forth.

Aside from being strategic about your major, you also want to be very careful about going deep in debt to fund your degree. Thankfully, there are some things you can do to dramatically lower the cost.

Consider Community Colleges

Many people overlook community colleges and go straight to four-year colleges and universities. The reason they do this is because they believe community colleges are not as academically rigorous as other schools.

But this isn’t true at all.

Community colleges are every bit as rigorous as most other schools. Their reputation for being easy isn’t deserved at all. I very proudly attended a community college and then transferred to a four-year school to complete my bachelor’s degree. The coursework at the community college I attended was every bit as rigorous as the state college I eventually graduated from.

Another fact to consider is many community college systems now have transfer agreements that allow you to transfer your community college credits directly to a four-year school as long as you maintain a minimum GPA. If community colleges weren’t as good as other schools, four-year schools wouldn’t accept credits from them in transfer. But they do all the time.

To give you an example, Virginia’s community college system has transfer agreements with over 30 schools including the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, The College of William and Mary, and others. These are very high-ranking schools!

Another benefit of transfer agreements is that it is essentially a backdoor route to getting admitted into your dream school. Not only do schools accept community college credits, but through transfer agreements, many of them offer guaranteed admissions. This sure beats having to study for the SAT, obtain letters of recommendation, write essays, and jump through all of those other hoops, doesn’t it?

Related: The Top 20 Best College Majors

Community College Savings

The savings you can realize from attending a community college for your first two years are substantial. According to Student Debt Relief, the average cost of attending a private four-year college is $35,000 for in-state students. Public colleges and universities are about $10,000 a year. And community colleges are about $3,500 a year.

Can you see how substantial the savings are? As affordable as community colleges are, it gets even better.

If you qualify for the PELL Grant, you will most likely receive enough grant money to pay for all of your tuition at a community college. And there are now some states that have made their community colleges free for their residents.

Yet another thing to consider with community colleges is many of them offer two-year degrees in fields that pay very well. Just a few examples include professions in the medical field, business, technology, and others. Many of these have average annual salaries of $50,000 – $60,000! Who says you have to earn a bachelor’s degree to do well in life?

If you are college-bound, you should definitely consider attending a community college. You can literally save thousands of dollars by attending one and then transfer to another school to finish your four-year degree.

Apply for the Pell Grant

Each year, many qualify for the Pell Grant, which is a grant from the federal government, to pay for college. The Pell Grant is awarded based on a person’s demonstrated financial need. To see if you qualify, you just fill out and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

As I’m writing this, the current FAFSA award – if you qualify for the full amount – is about $6,000 a year. This is not a small amount. If you choose to attend an affordable school (like community colleges and four-year state colleges), the Pell Grant can cover either all or a large part of your tuition.

The great thing about the Pell Grant is that it does not have to be repaid. If you qualify for the grant, the money will be sent directly to the school you are attending. The school will then put it in a special account to pay for your tuition.

Some schools will also send you a check for the remainder if there’s any grant money left over after your tuition has been paid. The Pell Grant can also be used to pay for books, supplies, fees, and other college expenses.

Consider Taking Challenge Exams for College Credit

Another way to save a lot of money on college tuition is to take and pass challenge exams for college credit.

What’s that? You didn’t know such a thing was possible?

Don’t feel bad if the concept is something new to you. Most people have never even heard of these exams even though they are accepted by the majority of colleges and universities in the United States.

The exams I’m referring to are known as CLEP Exams. CLEP is an acronym that stands for College Level Exam Program. Exams are currently available in over 30 different subjects.

CLEP Exams are administered at test centers all across the nation. Most of the exams are in multiple-choice format and, unlike the SAT, there’s no penalty for guessing. No letter grade is awarded for passing a CLEP Exam. They are all recorded as either Pass or Credit on official college transcripts.

Here’s one of the best things about CLEP Exams: If you fail one, no record of the failure is made on your official transcript. Schools only record the exams you pass. If you want to retake a failed exam, you do have to wait a minimum of six months to do so.

I’ve saved the best thing about CLEP Exams for last – the cost. As I’m writing this, CLEP Exams are under $100 each. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that some test centers do charge a fee to administer the exams, but it’s usually not very much.

Another type of challenge exam for college credit you can take is DSST Exams. DSST Exams were originally created by the federal government for military personnel. They are now open to anyone who wants to take them.

DSST exams are very similar to CLEP Exams. They are mostly multiple-choice, and they can be taken at test centers all across the nation. After you have completed all of the DSST exams you need, you just order a transcript and have it sent to your school. DSST Exams are priced similarly to CLEP Exams.

Most colleges and universities will accept at least 30 challenge exam credits. That’s one-fourth of a bachelor’s degree. That means you could earn 30 credits with this method for about $1,000. Not bad at all.

Consider One of These Great Deals

Did you know there are several companies you can work for that offer free tuition to their employees as a benefit? It’s true. This is money you can qualify for each year of your employment.

I’m going to reveal to you some amazing opportunities to earn quite a bit of free money for college that most don’t know about. Depending on the company you work for, you may be able to earn your degree for free (or pretty close to it). Let’s check them out…

Chipotle Mexican Grill

This popular Tex-Mex chain offers some pretty amazing education benefits to its employees. You may be able to qualify for up to $5,250 a year in tuition assistance. In addition, it’s possible to earn college credit for your on-the-job training.

Chipotle has partnered with a company called Guild Education to administer its educational benefits. Through this partnership, you are restricted to earning degrees through the company’s partner schools. Guild Education has negotiated tuition discounts to help you stretch your benefits.

Taco Bell

This is another popular restaurant chain that offers education benefits to its employees. Like Chipotle, the company has also partnered with Guild Education to administer its educational benefits. Similar restrictions apply. Through Taco Bell, you may qualify for up to $5,250 in tuition assistance each year and earn college credit for on-the-job training.

McDonald’s

Just about every community in the country has a McDonald’s. If you work for one of the company’s franchises, you may qualify for up to $2,500 in education benefits each year.

Walmart

Walmart recently started a new program where employees can earn their college degrees for $1 a day. Yes, you read that correctly – only one single dollar a day. In the world we currently live in where students are taking on six-figures in student loan debt to graduate, that’s next to nothing.

Walmart is another company that has partnered with Guild Education, and if you participate in their program, you’ll have to earn your degree through one of their partner schools. At only $1 a day, however, it’s technically possible to complete a bachelor’s degree for under $2,000.

Starbucks

Starbucks is another company with an amazing education program that its employees can take advantage of. This one is probably the best of the bunch.

Through Starbucks’ College Achievement Plan, the company will pay for all of your tuition at Arizona State University online. The company will pick up the tab for 100% of your degree. To qualify, you have to work at least 20 hours a week at any Starbucks location in the United States

Consider Joining the Military

Another option you might want to consider to earn a completely free college degree is to join any branch of the U.S. military.

Today’s modern military is filled with opportunity. With an enlistment in any branch, you can qualify for some amazing benefits that many who work in the civilian sector could only dream of. You may qualify for health and dental insurance, several weeks of paid vacation a year, a housing allowance, bonuses, and others.

The benefits you qualify for can vary, of course, depending on a variety of factors.

Another amazing benefit of joining the military is that you could be stationed in another country and get to see the world while the government picks up the tab. Just imagine being stationed in Germany, Spain, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, and many other places. If you are stationed in Europe, for example, you may be able to do some traveling and visit all of Europe with your military friends. How exciting is that?

Perhaps one of the best benefits of joining the military is the education benefits – which are nothing short of remarkable.

Military Tuition Assistance

If you join any branch of the military, you may qualify for military tuition assistance. This is a benefit that is offered each year. Depending on which branch you serve in, you may qualify for up to $4,500 a year in free tuition money you can use for college courses.

Free Challenge Exams

With an enlistment in the military, you may also be able to qualify for free CLEP and DSST challenge exams. Challenge exams are already a very affordable way to quickly earn college credit, but through the military, these exams are free.

The GI Bill

You may also qualify for the GI Bill. It’s important to point out that the GI Bill is different from military tuition assistance. If you enlist, you will most likely qualify for both.

The GI Bill is an amazing benefit that can potentially pay for all of a college degree (depending on the cost of the school you attend). In addition to paying for college, it can also be used to pay for career and vocational training, flight training, and other educational programs.

Military Friendly Schools

If you are serving in the military, you’ll definitely want to enroll in a school that is considered “military friendly.” This just means the school awards college credit for the completion of military training programs. In addition, many of these schools also offer tuition discounts to service members, thus allowing your education benefits to stretch even further

Related: The Top 20 Highest Paying Jobs Without a Degree

Consider Joining the Reserves or National Guard

Yet another way to obtain a lot of money to pay for your college degree is to join either the Reserves or National Guard. With this opportunity, you can serve your country on a part-time basis while working full-time on your degree.

The great thing about the Reserves or National Guard is that you will qualify for many of the same benefits as the full-timers. You may be able to qualify for both the GI Bill and military tuition assistance.

There are many students who are able to pay for all or the majority of their degree programs through their part-time jobs with the Reserves or National Guard. This part-time employment option offers benefits that are better than many full-time jobs!

If this sounds like an interesting option to you, it’s important to point out that you will have a service commitment of several years. You will also have to go through basic training and additional training for your military career.

After your initial training is complete, you will be required to serve one weekend a month in addition to one continuous two-week period of training each year. The two-week training session is usually held during the summer months, which is perfect for summer vacations from school.

Something else to think about with this college funding option is that there is always the possibility that you could be called up for active duty service. That is, after all, the purpose of having Reserves and National Guard personnel – to be on standby in case of a national emergency of some kind.

If this sounds like something you might be interested in, definitely talk to a recruiter to learn more and see what benefits you qualify for. You never know, you may enjoy your time in the military so much you decide to go in full-time after graduating.

Consider ROTC

Another way to go through the military and earn a free degree is through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). ROTC is a program for college students that prepares them to enter a branch of the military as an officer. ROTC is offered by many different colleges and universities all across the country.

It’s important to point out that participation alone in ROTC does not mean you will qualify to have your college degree paid for. You do have to apply for the ROTC scholarship, and not everyone who applies will be accepted. It is competitive.

If you do join ROTC, you will have to participate in military training in addition to your regular academic studies. And when you graduate, you will be commissioned as a junior officer in one branch of the military. You will then be required to complete a service commitment lasting several years

Consider Applying to a Work College

What’s a work college?

A work college is a special group of colleges that offer either free or substantially reduced tuition to all students who are admitted.

All students who attend a work college are required to work a part-time job either on-campus or nearby in the community for each year of attendance to help offset the cost. In addition to offering free or reduced tuition, some of these schools also don’t charge room or board.

You can learn more about these schools on the Work Colleges Consortium website.

The work colleges currently include Berea College (KY), Alice Lloyd College (KY), College of the Ozarks (MO), Bethany Global University (MN), Blackburn College (IL), Paul Quinn College (TX), Sterling College (KS), and Warren Wilson College (NC).

Consider Applying to a Work-Study Program

Another way you can potentially earn some money for college is to apply for a federal work-study program. This is a program where you can work a job either on your college campus or nearby in the community to earn some money to help you pay for school.

Applying for work-study is very easy. There’s a section on the FAFSA that asks if you are interested in work study. This is the same form you submit to see if you qualify for the Pell Grant. You just indicate on the form that you are interested in the program. You will then be informed of whether you qualify either by regular mail or email. It just depends on the notification option you select.

If you do qualify for work-study, be sure to contact your school as soon as you receive notification that you have been approved to find out what jobs are available. The good ones don’t stay available for very long, so it’s important to take quick action to get the best job you can.

Scholarships

Another possibility for landing some free money for college is to apply for as many scholarships as you possibly can. Winning scholarships is a numbers game. The more you apply for, the greater your chances are of scoring some free money for school.

There’s no guarantee that you’ll be selected for any scholarship, however. Scholarships are highly-competitive. Some scholarships may have hundreds or even thousands of applicants when only a few will be selected to receive the money.

Do you see the problem?

Now, I certainly don’t want to talk you out of applying for scholarships. I just want you to know that applying for a zillion scholarships and hoping for the best is not a very good strategy for funding your college education.

There are plenty of valedictorians who go off to college each year without landing any scholarships. Because of the fierce competition, scholarship money should be considered bonus money for school and should not be the primary focus of your college funding efforts.

Consider Working for a School That Offers Free Tuition

Did you know there are many colleges and universities that offer free tuition as a benefit to their employees?

Scout’s honor.

You may be able to take advantage of this to earn a free or mostly-free college degree while working for a school full-time and taking classes in the evenings or online.

Free tuition is commonly offered as a benefit at many schools. It’s just another perk of working for a school like health insurance, sick days, health and dental insurance, and others.

If you can land a job at a college or university, you can use this to your advantage to take classes for free. You may still have to pay for your books and other expenses, of course, but the most expensive part – the tuition – will be covered.

There are many possible positions on campuses that don’t require a college degree. You could, for example, apply to work as a custodian, in the grounds maintenance department, or as an administrative assistant. The larger the school, the more opportunities it will have.

It’s very easy to find out if a school offers free tuition as a benefit. You just go to the employment section of the school’s website and review the benefits it offers. If free tuition is offered, it will be listed along with the details (how many credits per semester, restrictions, etc.).

Consider Studying the Trades

Lastly, are you absolutely sure you even need a college degree? It’s not a question to be taken lightly. As I’m writing this, there are currently millions of unfilled jobs in the skilled trades that pay very well.

Examples of high-paying trade jobs including plumbers, electricians, rotary drill operators for the gas and oil industries, boilermakers, aircraft mechanics, diesel mechanics, pipefitters, crane operators, HVAC technicians, millwrights, commercial drivers, and many others.

The trades typically don’t require the completion of a college degree, although some community colleges do offer degree and certificate programs. In some cases, all you need to do is take one or more classes and pass an exam to get started. There are also some trades you can learn through on-the-job apprenticeships.

Mike Rowe, from the popular TV show, Dirty Jobs, has recently founded a new organization to promote the trades called the Mike Rowe Works Foundation. It offers a scholarship program to help you pay for training in one of the trades.

It never hurts to apply.

Is College Worth It? Final Thoughts

So, is college worth it?

I believe it is, but you need to be very strategic in how you approach college. You need to be very careful when you choose your major to make sure your degree will lead to a good-paying job. And you also need to take measures to control the cost like attending community colleges, attending in-state schools, and using challenge exams.

As I’ve demonstrated in this article, it’s definitely possible to earn a college degree for very little money. You do have options.

You can earn a college degree for very little money by attending a community college, taking challenge exams for college credit, working for a company that offers tuition assistance benefits, through one of the military options, and by attending one of the work colleges. You may also be able to score some money for college by applying for the Pell Grant, through work-study, and by winning scholarships.

And, of course, it’s vitally important to think about whether you even need a college degree. It can take several years to earn a college degree. There are now many high-paying careers in the trades where you can start earning more quickly than if you took the college degree route.

Things have changed a lot in the world of higher education in recent years. Be smart about it and your degree can take you places.

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Cyrus Vanover

Cyrus Vanover, MBA, is a financial copywriter who has written for companies of all sizes. He is also the author of the personal finance book, "Earn A Debt-Free College Degree." His goal is to help families save money, make more money, and achieve financial independence. Based in the mountains of Virginia, he enjoys hiking the local trails, listening to 80s music, and reading books on military history in his spare time. Read more.

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