A Degree in Debt: Is College Worth it?

It is often assumed that the largest purchase a person will make throughout their lifetime is a brand-new car or a house. In reality, the most substantial purchase a person, particularly in the United States, can make is far less significant. Ultimately, this massive purchase equates to nothing more than a piece of paper, although it enables us with the ability to obtain a nicer car or bigger house in the future. A college degree is simultaneously the most significant and insignificant purchase one can make. Obtaining a bachelor’s degree at a standard American university can easily cost anywhere from $40,000 to $105,000 by the time it’s completed, and that is before interest, supplies, textbooks, and outrageous living expenses are considered. At the risk of sounding slightly hypocritical, I personally believe the utility derived from college is hardly worth the monetary value placed on it. It is not wasted on me that the piece of paper received at the end of college holds value, but I believe the “value” is vastly misconstrued, inflated, and based on outdated and obsolete ideas and beliefs, negating the passionate and unique personalities we are encouraged to nurture in our younger years. Sure, receiving a college degree can increase employment opportunities, but it is not guaranteed. We end up, essentially, paying a massive amount of money for the mere possibility of a better career and, most likely, whatever career we land in will have nothing to do with our field of study anyway. (London)

Throughout our primary and secondary school years we are encouraged to be unique and to pursue our uniqueness fervently in our adult lives, but in order to have a comfortable lifestyle we are told we must first conform to a prescribed path with very little “wiggle room”. Our unique talents, experiences, and qualifications are inconsequential when pursuing a career, regardless of how useful they could be, unless they are accompanied by a college degree. Pew Research Center conducted a survey, in which they found that, “Americans who lack a four-year college degree report that they have declined to apply for a job they felt they were qualified for, because that job required a bachelor’s degree.” Although, if we do decide to pursue the college degree, we are expected to pay tens of thousands of dollars to be told what and how to think, and are often ostracized if we stray too far off the path or forgo it altogether. Our once praised individuality is suddenly irrelevant and is, in many cases, drastically watered down to fit the cookie-cutter college student expectation. Lola Fadulu explains that, “college can’t address everyone’s needs, especially those who have immediate fiscal obligation.” To believe that there is only one method in which to reach the perceived “employable checkpoint” is foolish, and to expect someone to not only nullify, but impede on their individual abilities and future financial stability, for the sole purpose of having a semi-pleasant lifestyle, seems to be very counterproductive. Yet, it is still the widely accepted way of transitioning from child to adult: make the one of the biggest financial decisions of your life, become a sheep, and lower your expectations for yourself because everyone else is doing it too.  We would never expect people to have the same musical interests, or to decorate their house the same way, so why is it almost mandatory for everyone to go to college, bury themselves in debt, and receive a degree just to become employable in a career sufficient enough to sustain even a middle-class lifestyle? Vocational training and apprenticeships are just as valuable, and in some ways more valuable, as college. Unlike college, vocational training and apprenticeships are targeted on a specific field and provide hands-on, immersive experiences without diving into a pit of debt (Fadulu). In college, you are expected pay money to simply sit and listen to an instructor talk about how things work rather than seeing it for yourself, encounter the inevitable issues that will arise, and learn how to think critically to work through them. Yet, somehow college education is more valued to employers.

When viewed in the proper light, the entire concept of college is a corrupt indoctrination into a life full of debt that we willingly sign up for, because there is little to no choice to do otherwise. Herbert London states in his article, College: Who Profits?, “the illusion that it will work…that a college degree has market value is irresistible.” We are conditioned to believe that attending college holds so much value that it is worth the tens of thousands of dollars we are expected to pay for it. From early childhood, college is presented almost as a requirement, so much so that Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, calls is a “default activity” (London). Meanwhile, the alternatives to college are understated, devalued, and scarcely accepted by potential employers. George Anders, the author of You Can Do Anything, states that some positions require “extra poise and promotability that a college student can bring.” I would argue that, if given the same level of attention and encouragement, vocational training and apprenticeships can provide people just as much “poise and promotability” as any college, and maybe even more (Fadulu).

  It is undeniable that there are some invaluable college-specific tools and opportunities one can obtain, if that’s the path someone chooses. Nancy Cantor, in her article Civic Engagement: The University as a Public Good, states, “the university can foster an experimental attitude -playful, if you will- that can give rise to both intellectual discovery and social innovation.” College provides the setting and situations for social development in a somewhat more relaxed environment than the workplace. If you cannot work well with others in the workplace, it could cost you that job. If you cannot work well with others in college, your grade might suffer, but you will almost always have another chance to improve and try again. Employers typically seek college graduates because of the soft skills attained throughout their time as students, as opposed to having someone who may know how to do the job, but not how to execute the job in the most satisfactory way when it comes to dealing with other people. Attending college before entering the workforce provides students a chance for personal and intellectual growth and, while a surprising number of students pursue a career having nothing to do with their degree, they acquire a general knowledge and set of experiences that benefit them in a broader way than other methods may have (Pew).

While it would be foolish of me to say that college has no value, I believe that value has been financially inflated so much that it seems wiser to seek alternative routes. The financial burden of going to college to only receive a piece of paper that grants the possibility, not promise, of a relatively decent career just doesn’t seem completely logical. Though there are social and intellectual benefits, most of the time, effort, and money spent throughout a college education seems wasted. If we compared the actual utility obtained from attending college to what we pay for it, I think it would become shockingly obvious that it is immensely disproportionate.

Works Cited

Bird, Caroline. “The Case Against College.” Rpt. In the Mercury Reader, edited by Janice Neuleib, Kathleen Cane, and Stephen Ruffus, Pearson Learning Solutions, 2016. pp. 102-105.

Cantor, Nancy. “Civic Engagement: The University as Public Good.” Rpt. In the Mercury Reader, edited by Janice Neuleib, Kathleen Cane, and Stephan Ruffus, Pearson Learning Solutions, 2016. pp. 123-134

London, Herbert. “College: Who Profits?” Academic Questions. September 2013, Vol. 26 Issue 3, pp. 360-365.

Fadulu, Lola. “Do Employers Overestimate the Value of a College Degree?” The Atlantic. December 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/12/do-employers-overestimate-the-value-of-a-college-degree/547343/ Accessed November 24th, 2018

“The Value of a College Education.” Pew Research Center, The State of American Jobs. October 2016. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2016/10/06/5-the-value-of-a-college-education/ Accessed November 24th, 2018


  • comment-avatar
    Winchester Potholl 1 year

    As someone going through college purely on student loans this is highly relatable and speaks to a greater issue in our society. Well written and many of valid points.

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