How Useful Is College?

Courtesy of Loyola University Chicago

It’s spring, and everyone on campus knows what that means: tour groups, and lots of them. But, as seemingly half the high schoolers in the state meander around Lake Shore Campus, there’s an important question to ask: Should they be going to Loyola? 

I’m clearly completely unbiased given my @luc.edu email, but if they’re going to college there is no better place than Loyola. The more important question is whether or not they should be going to college at all. Is paying tens of thousands of dollars to learn classroom skills really the most useful thing for all of these students to be doing for the next four years?

Of course, for some, college is more than worth it. Many of those studying to be doctors or nurses will make their loans back and then some. These are jobs where everyone can agree it’s best to have well-educated people. Though, this is certainly not the case for everyone here. 

Many of those students who enter college without a clear idea of what they want to do could figure out their interests far more cheaply. An increasingly common alternative is to get general requirements complete at a community college before transferring to a larger school. 

This is an option far cheaper for many — at an average of under $1,800 a semester at a community college compared to the almost $16,000 on average for a four-year university — and has relatively few downsides. The final transfer school is often the only school listed on a student’s diploma, community colleges are often easier to get accepted to and, once general requirements are done, it can also be easier to get into a larger school.

But the final goal doesn’t necessarily have to be a school like Loyola at all. Roughly a third of those who go to college said they went just because they saw it as the thing to do, based on the 2018 International Student Survey. This 30 percent went to a four-year university mainly because they felt it was the natural progression of the academic career rather than any specific career goal in mind, with another 23 percent reporting they went primarily because they felt pressured by others.

But college shouldn’t be the default option for nearly as many students. 

For those who don’t know if they will be able to — much less want to — finish college, a four-year university can be worse than doing nothing at all. The average high school graduate makes $1.3 million over the course of their life compared to about $2.3 million for those with a bachelor’s degree, according to a study by Georgetown University. This is a clear positive for those who go to college knowing they can complete it. But those who drop out of college look much more like students with high school diplomas, making only $1.5 million even though they enter the workforce later and with much more debt.

This is especially true considering almost half of college graduates begin their careers in jobs which don’t require a college degree, a number that’s been rapidly rising. This means it’s an increasing option to begin a job and then go back to school if need be — a cost often covered by employers.

But the answer for many doesn’t include college at all: trade school. Trade schools are where people go to learn the real-world skills required for jobs like electricians, carpenters or welders. Though many don’t see these jobs as glamorous, they can pay very well. The average salary of a job that requires a trade school degree is listed as over $70,000 on SimplyHired.com. While this seems to be on the high end, most studies agree the difference between the average trade school graduate and the average college graduate is, at most, only one to two year extra wages over a whole career.

As if that wasn’t enough, the trades are hiring. Trained people are in short supply and many of these industries are growing quickly.

So, does that mean everyone reading this should transfer out of Loyola now? No, probably not. But, if you are one of those touring students, you might want to step back and think: Is college the best option for you?

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