By Siri Ratnam
San Jose, California
Growing up in the Bay Area, I’m no stranger to the constant pressure of having to attend a four year college immediately after I graduate high school. For me and many of my peers, the grind starts as early as middle school as we load up on extracurriculars, aim for perfect SAT scores, and see college counselors, all to be able to enter the world with not just a high school diploma, but a university degree as well. We are expected to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars, some even going into debt, just to have a piece of paper that says, “I spent four years here”- a piece of paper that doesn’t even guarantee a job. It begs the question: in this day and age, is pursuing a college degree even worth it?
Technically, yes, but the context behind this question is much more complicated than a one word answer and warrants a closer look at the benefits of having one. As of 2021, college graduates between the ages of 22 and 27 made a median wage of about $52,000. That is $22,000 more than their peers who held only a high school diploma, a gap that is only widening with time. Aside from wage gaps, there is also a widening gap in unemployment rates between those with college degrees and those without, which is only highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of June 2020, 12.2% of those without a college degree were unemployed compared to college graduates, at 6.8%. Out of the 11.6 million jobs created since 2010, 95% of them were taken by those holding a college degree. To add to that, those with a college degree from low-income backgrounds saw a 71% increase in their career earnings, enough to cancel out any costs associated with going to college. However, with the rising costs of college tuition, those same benefits are quickly becoming unattainable. In the last 40 years, the cost of attending a four year college has increased 169%; meanwhile, wages have only gone up 19% for those aged 22 to 27.
That isn’t to say college is a requirement for becoming successful. Stories are told of how Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard to become a billionaire alongside becoming the CEO of Facebook. Elon Musk is famed for having said that a college degree isn’t needed for a job at Tesla. But both of these men attended Ivy League universities, with the latter graduating from one, and came from wealthy backgrounds. For the average person, the expectation of starting a company right after high school and becoming wealthy is not a reasonable one, especially when 67% of start-ups fail by their 10th year. Not to mention that the highest paying jobs consistently require some level of graduate school, whether that be medical school, law school, an MBA, etc. The most basic requirement to even set foot in the world of graduate school is a Bachelor's degree.
Between the high costs of attendance in return for job opportunities and higher earning potential, the case for a college degree is filled with both pros and cons. However, the reality is that two in three jobs require a college degree and that that number is predicted to grow to 70% of the entire job market by 2027. This means that without a college degree, potential career earnings and job opportunities are already very limited, and that restriction will only increase in the coming years. So, while a college degree isn’t exactly a requirement for success in the modern world, it’s certainly a major advantage and often a direct pathway to success for the vast majority.