Is College Still Worth The Cost?

Is College Still Worth The Cost?

There’s no question that having a college degree increases your potential job opportunities and associated earnings potential. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2022 the median wages of four-year college graduates age 25 and older was over 60% higher than for workers with only a high school diploma. But the decision becomes more challenging when you start your college search. Will you be able to get good-paying jobs after graduating from the particular school in which you are interested? And will that lifetime return justify how much they will charge you? Especially with higher-education costs continuing to significantly outpace the rate of inflation?

Thanks to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), the above question can now be addressed with much greater accuracy. Their college scorecard contains a myriad of detail about institutional characteristics, enrollment, student aid, costs, and student outcomes for over 3,800 post-secondary institutions, including two-year and four-year colleges as well as those offering vocational and trade careers. And when I say myriad, I mean it. The spreadsheet contains over 3,000 columns of data points for each institution. Here’s the link:

You might think that this level of detail shouldn’t really matter. After all, wouldn’t graduating from any college give your earnings a boost over workers with only a high-school education? Surprisingly, that’s not the case. Among the data compiled by the DOE are the median earnings ten years after enrollment of some five million graduates across the catalogued schools. The HEA Group, a research organization focused on higher education, used this data to determine how many of the post-secondary institutions’ graduates earned more than those with only a high school education. They found that at over a thousand schools the majority of students failed to beat high school graduates using that metric. And graduates at over 20% of the schools were unable to earn even a minimum wage ($15 per hour).

Of course there’s a wide variation of potential future earnings from any school. They not only depend on the choice of career or major and the location in which the student ends up working, but also on each student’s own skill set and work ethic. And many of the schools that could not meet the earnings benchmarks above were for-profit institutions concentrating on associate degrees and certificates. Nonetheless this serves to point out the importance of doing your due diligence when it comes to choosing the right college.

If you already know the career you want to pursue, one way to get started is to research its earnings potential before selecting an individual school. While the DOE college scorecard does have some useful occupational data, a more comprehensive source is the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook ( In addition to median pay for thousands of job types it also tells you the level of education needed.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that everyone should base their career goals solely on earnings potential. I believe that doing what you love will provide greater rewards over your lifetime than trying to make a lot of money. But even if you don’t know what major to focus on, you can still use the college scorecard to calculate a return on investment (ROI) of attending each college on your shortlist. You might discover that several ought to be tossed out.

A college education today can be ridiculously expensive. Although you won’t know the actual cost until you apply, why not use the data the government has compiled to increase the probability that the school you ultimately choose will help you become a success.

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