Does it Pay to Get a College Education?

5 years ago

I have been reading some very troubling articles lately about the state of affairs for young adults entering the workforce. Because I don't know someone personally affected, it sort of flies past my radar map until a number of things land all at the same time. As a result, I though it was worth pointing out a few recent articles I read and opening the dialogue here on the site about this topic. Does it still pay to invest in a college education, even when diplomas no longer open the doors they once did?

My journey through this topic started on a Sunday morning a few weeks ago over coffee and breakfast as I read New York Magazine's cover article: "The Kids Are Actually Sort of Alright" (keeping in mind the cover had a photo of a recent graduate that reads "Sucks to Be Us"). It was fairly painful to read the experiences of recent college graduates who are struggling to figure out what to do with their talent all while moving back home with their parents, working a low-paying job, and coming to grips with paying back student loan debt. As the article shares:

I know this might read as very woe-is-us, but these are the facts: Nearly 14 percent of college graduates from the classes of 2006 through 2010 can’t find full-time work, and overall just 55.3 percent of people ages 16 to 29 have jobs. That’s the lowest percentage since World War II, as you might have heard an Occupy Wall Street protester point out. (Not coincidentally, one in five young adults now lives below the poverty line.) Almost a quarter more people ages 25 to 34—in other words, people who should be a few years into their independent lives—are living with their parents than at the beginning of the recession.

Staggering percentages. Now realist that I am I realize that there is a percentage of those without jobs that really could have meaningful work if they put a little elbow grease into it and raised their efforts and profile a notch. Still, no matter how you slice it you have an entire generation getting out of the starting blocks awfully slow (or not at all) when it comes to building up their earning potential. A lot of our young adults feel screwed now and screwed for the future.

The article made it to my sometime-later-article-idea-file and I didn't give it much more thought. Until... my father showed up with his stack of Time magazines that he loans us. I usually flip and toss most of them (I mean really, who has that kind of time to read a weekly magazine on top of everything else?). Before I did, though the article "I Owe You" caught my eye (thus the importance of the flip step before the toss to the recycling bin). The article is really worth a read if you can pick up a copy... essentially, it lays out how the members of the Class of 2011 have been dubbed the Most Indebted Class Ever (and it's only getting worse). With the lack of employment options the staggering debt is creating a shocking wake up call that will follow new graduates for decades to come (since student debt is almost never forgiven even in the case of bankruptcy). According to the article:

Average student-loan debt for new gratudates has reached $27,300 according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of and, sites that help students plan and pay for college.

That may be the average but students interviewed for the article had amassed debt to the tune of $60,000, $90,000, or even six figures plus. That's not including things like students who go the route of law or medical school... this is just bachelor educations. So while many students dodge calls from creditors as they toil at jobs earning $9 or $10 per hour it begs the question... does it pay to receive a college education in today's times? According to the Time Magazine article, on the whole, college still improves job prospects as 2010 unemployment rates for adults 25 and older were 10.3% for high school grads and only 4.7% for those with a bachelor's degree. Still, the struggles young adults face are not without noting given the rising cost of college tuition and fees and the declining availability of high quality jobs at graduation.

Of course these articles go on to praise degrees in math and science because those are fields in which employment opportunities are growing. That's great... IF and a big honking IF you have both an interest and aptitude in those areas. What I know for certain is that trying to pursue something that is not your strength is a recipe for disaster at some point.

As a young adult or a parent of a young adult, what is your experience and opinion? What challenges are you facing? How are you navigating the challenges? What are your lessons learned (or regrets) along the way? Would love to hear your stories in the comments ...

Credit Image: Kevin Spencer on Flickr

Paula Gregorowicz, The Intuitive Intelligence™ Coach
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