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College Success

Is Going to College Really Worth the Cost?

06.20.2023 • 10 min read

Nick Griffin

Subject Matter Expert

This article explains the average rate return of a college degree, lists the pros in the working life of going to college, mentions the things to consider before taking a degree, and includes the alternatives for a college degree.

In This Article

  1. How Much Does College Cost?

  2. 5 Benefits of Going to College

  3. 4 Outcomes To Consider Before Going to College

  4. 3 Great College Alternatives

Each year, thousands of prospective students evaluate the time and energy it takes to get a college degree. They think about the years spent pouring over textbooks and sitting in lectures, and the countless hours spent studying for exams and working on projects.

Perhaps the largest factor to consider is the financial strain. Over 40 million Americans have outstanding student loan debt they need to pay off.

Whether you’re going to college after high school, debating getting an advanced degree, or going back to school at 30 to get your bachelor’s degree, you want to know the total cost.

Even after considering the weight of these costs, most teachers, parents, counselors, and advisors still recommend getting a college degree.

All this leads to the question—is college worth it?

How Much Does College Cost?

Of course, the first factor to discuss when evaluating the worth of a college degree is the financial cost.

It’s difficult to put an exact number on the cost of college. There are several factors, such as the type of degree (liberal arts vs. computer science), plus the tuition differences between public colleges and private colleges, or in-state vs. out-of-state tuition rates.

But we can look at the average debt after graduation. According to Third Way, the average college graduate accumulates roughly $30,000 in student loan debt by the time they graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

This number alone is scary enough to deter some prospective students from embarking on their college journey. There is, however, much more to consider than the average student loan debt.

The typical four-year college graduate will earn around $900,000 more in their lifetime than the average high school graduate. This means the return on investment for a college education is roughly 30 times the investment in a college education.

Several types of financial aid can pay for college, some of which do not need to be paid back.

Most students combine different forms of financial aid to pay for college, reducing their post-college debt.

The best place to start exploring your options is by filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This application will tell the federal government, state government, and your school your financial needs.

Consider each of the following forms of financial aid:


Grants are free money given to a student based on their financial need. This money can come from the federal government or the state government and can be used to pay the cost of tuition, school fees, and other educational expenses.

Most grant money is given out based on the difference between the cost of attendance (COA) and a student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Federal Pell Grants are the most common. This money is distributed in payments called disbursements each semester of an academic year.


Scholarships are another financial aid award, but they’re based on merit— being especially deserving of something. Scholarships are awarded for things like:

  • Academic achievement in high school

  • Athletic ability

  • Essay writing

  • A chosen career path

Unlike grants, scholarships can come from multiple sources at the national, state, or local levels. Similar to grants, this money does not need to be paid back.


Student loans, whether federal or private loans, represent money borrowed that you must eventually pay back. Based on the type of loan a student takes out, the loan will have a set or variable interest rate .

Federal student loans are direct loans that have an interest rate set by the federal reserve and come in 2 types: subsidized and unsubsidized.

Subsidized loans are offered to undergraduate students.

Subsidized means that the loans do not gain interest until 6 months after a student graduates from college—when repayment starts. This allows students to find a good job before starting to pay the money back.

Unsubsidized loans are offered to graduate students or on top of subsidized loans.

Unsubsidized loans start accruing interest right away. When you take out unsubsidized loans, the interest accrues quickly. A wise student would make interest payments while in school.

Federal PLUS Loans are another form of unsubsidized loan. PLUS Loan borrowers usually need more funds than their subsidized or unsubsidized loans offer. It’s common for parents to take out PLUS loans to help pay for their child’s education.


The program category of financial aid encompasses a diverse range of financial aid opportunities.

Federal work-study is one type of financial aid program. Work-study is offered to students who have substantial financial needs based on their EFC. In work-study, a student is employed at their college or local nonprofit organization to make money to help with school costs.

Various state and federal programs also help pay for college based on the student’s chosen career. Usually, these programs will pay off student loans under certain stipulations, such as working in a rural community for 3 years.

Prospective students should also look into employee programs. Many organizations will invest in their employees’ education to retain and advance their employees. This could be a perk at your current job.

5 Benefits of Going to College

To determine if college is worth the costs, consider all of the benefits of college beyond just the monetary value of a college degree.

1. More jobs require a college degree

A college degree opens up a world of high-paying jobs that are not available to those with only a high school diploma.

Georgetown University predicts that by 2027, nearly 70% of all jobs will require a college degree. This means that in the near future, it will be vital to have a college education on your resume.

2. More college degree jobs have employer-paid benefits

Many people don’t think of calculating the impact of employer-paid benefits when thinking about future salary earnings. The fact is, employer-paid benefits—health care, vision, dental, retirement—can save you hundreds of dollars per month in out-of-pocket expenses.

Jobs that offer these types of benefits are more available to those with college degrees than those without them. In fact, around 70% of workers with college degrees have employer-provided coverage. Compare that to only 52% of those without a college degree.

3. Networking and building connections

College students meet a wide range of experienced professionals and up-and-coming professionals in a variety of fields. This should not be taken lightly when it comes to finding the job you want in the future.

In 2020, CNBC reported that between 70-80% of jobs are filled through personal and professional connections. This makes networking a top priority in finding the job you desire in today’s job market.

4. Increased awareness of varying cultures and opinions

With the interconnectedness of our world today, it’s increasingly important to be able to connect and work with a variety of people in different contexts.

Going to college can expose you to a world of cultural perspectives that help you understand the way others think and operate.

5. Healthier lifestyle

According to a CollegeBoard comprehensive report, college students live a healthier lifestyle than non-college graduates. The report found that 81% of college graduates report exercising regularly compared to 54% of those with a high school degree.

These trends stayed consistent throughout adulthood, with 75% of college grads aged 55-64 reporting regular exercise and only 48% of non-grads.

When you also factor in the higher chances of having health insurance, it adds up to college graduates, on average, living 6 years longer than non-college graduates.

4 Outcomes To Consider Before Going to College

With numerous benefits of a college degree, excitement can take over quickly. Before going online to fill out your FAFSA and start your college journey, consider a few things first.

To make sure college is the right fit for you, reflect on the following:

1. A future with loan debt

While a college education is worth the cost for most people in the long run, that may not be the case for you.

Taking on college loan debt should not be taken lightly. The average bachelor’s degree holder has debt of around $30,000, which could take a long time to pay it off.

Budgeting is not an easy endeavor, but it’s essential to pay off your student loans sooner rather than later.

2. Four or more years to start working in the career you want

Going back to school in any capacity takes time. This is time away from family, friends, your current career, and even some of the things you enjoy most. This is a big commitment that you must evaluate carefully.

It’s possible to work full time and go to school full time. Many people manage work, school, and life all the time, but it takes strong organizational skills and the right attitude.

3. Your career may take you in an unexpected direction

Just because students enter a certain major doesn’t necessarily mean that they will end up in that career later on. College is much more than choosing a major and heading down a specific career path.

With the connections you build during college, graduates can head in various directions. While choosing a major in an area you’re interested in is important, it’s best to keep an open mind on where you’ll end up.

4. Other life goals and ambitions

Consider other goals ‌you have in your life outside a career path. Write them down, and reflect on how college fits with these other things that are also important to you. There are opportunity costs with any decision, so make sure you’re aware of them.

3 Great College Alternatives

You may find that traditional 4-year education is not for you, but you still know that advancing your skillset is a smart move. That’s OK. Plenty of other options can help you reap some of the benefits of college in a fraction of the time and at a much lower cost.

Explore some of the following alternatives to get started on a college degree:

1. Associate Degree

An associate degree can be a great way to get an affordable education in under 2 years. You earn higher pay and gain advanced skills to help you excel in your chosen career path. has partnered with Golden Gate University (GGU) to offer a high-quality online associate degree at only $149 per credit. All Degrees+ courses are taught by GGU instructors using Outlier’s award-winning and engaging platform. The courses are asynchronous, so you can schedule school around your life.

Students enrolled in Degrees+ earn a career certificate in their first year of the program, so you can land your dream job sooner.

2. Trade School

Also called vocational schools or technical colleges, trade schools offer hands-on education for future work in the skilled trades. These programs typically take between 6 months and 2 years to give you the skills you need for a successful career.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, both the demand for trade work and average salaries are on the rise. By attending a trade school to become a plumber or electrician, for example, you could be earning a top salary in a high-demand field within 2 years.

3. Certificate Programs

Certificate programs are on the rise, especially online and through community colleges. For prospective students who are unsure about a traditional 4-year college, a certificate program is a great place to start.

Outlier’s College Foundation Certificate allows you to take 4 college courses at 50% less cost than a traditional college. You’ll earn transferable college credits from the University of Pittsburgh, so you can take your credits with you to any future college program.

By enrolling in a certificate program to complete prerequisite courses, you could decide if continuing in higher education is a good fit for you. If so, you would be well on your way to that college degree you want.

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