I’ve been thinking lately about the value of a college education. I earned a B.A. in Psychology from Willamette University in 1991 (with a minor in English Lit, and almost another minor in Speech Com). What have I done with this degree? Almost nothing. Yet I do not regret the money and years I spent working to earn it.

The financial value of a college degree
Does earning a college degree make a difference to your future? Absolutely. The facts are striking. On average, those who have a college degree earn almost twice as much as those who do not. According to the U.S. Census Bureau:

Adults with advanced degrees earn four times more than those with less than a high school diploma. Workers 18 and older with a master’s, professional or doctoral degree earned an average of $82,320 in 2006, while those with less than a high school diploma earned $20,873.

Workers with a bachelor’s degree earned an average of $56,788 in 2006; those with a high school diploma earned $31,071. This flurry of numbers makes more sense when viewed in a table:

Education Avg. Income Increase
Drop-out $20,873
High school $31,071 48.9%
College $56,788 82.8%
Advanced $82,320 45.0%

Completing college is huge. Over a life-time, a college degree is generally worth almost a million dollars. That’s money that can be used for saving, for fun, for whatever. The financial benefits of a college education are significant, and they’re very real.

Other benefits of a college degree
Obtaining a college degree isn’t just about making more money. According to Katharine Hansen at Quintessential Careers, a college education is associated with other benefits, such as:

  • Longer life-spans
  • Greater economic stability and security
  • More prestigious employment and greater job satisfaction
  • Less dependency on government assistance
  • Greater participation in leisure and artistic activities
  • Greater community service and leadership
  • More self-confidence

A college education also gives you a broad base of knowledge on which to build. It teaches you to solve more of life’s problems. It gives you future reference points for discussing art, entertainment, politics, and history.

College offers other learning opportunities, too. Much of what I gained in college came from learning outside the classroom, from participating in clubs and other campus organizations. Many degree programs allow students to “test-drive” careers through internships and practicums.

The label on your degree does NOT matter
I asked Michael Hampton, director of career development at Western Oregon University, what advice he would offer a student who is deciding whether or not to attend college. He replied:

Unless you are going to be an engineer, architect, teacher, lawyer, the label on your degree does not matter.  The degree is a check-mark (as opposed to the focus) in most job requirements. Many job ads will state: “Business, Communications or other degree required.”  Most folks have the “other”.

I have a BA in Speech, Telecommunications & Film.  As a television news photographer, youth director, communications director, substitute school teacher, sports marketing manager, career programs coordinator, no one ever said to me: “You know what?  We would like to hire you, but we’re not sure what that label is on your degree.”

Honestly, at the University of Oregon, I was looking for an “easy” degree because I was not a book-smart student.  I was able to take mostly film & television classes to earn my BA, so I signed up.  The experiences I took advantage of (internships, volunteering, and part-time jobs) in college set me up to be marketable to employers.  Again, the jobs I went after required degrees, but the label on the degree was not a barrier.

Here are some more prominent examples:

  • What was Alan Greenspan’s major? Econ, but he studied music first
  • What was Michael Jordan’s major? Math, then Geography (dropped out to play professional basketball, later returned to earn his degree)
  • What was Lisa Kudrow’s major? Biology
  • What was Cindy Crawford’s major? Chemical Engineering (dropped out for modeling career)
  • What was Ted Turner’s major? Classics (expelled for hanky-panky)
  • What was former HP CEO Carly Fiorina’s major? Philosophy
  • What was George W. Bush’s major? History
  • What was Jay Leno‘s major? Philosophy

If a student is struggling to get good grades, I encourage them to look at the course catalog and choose a major based on the likability of most of the classes they would have to take, their positive experiences with the professors in the major, and the number of credits they have already taken that are compatible.  They should set themselves up to be successful. Getting through the pre-reqs is a major barrier for some.  Combine some “fun” classes with the challenging required courses to try and make the experience more enjoyable.

Be cool — stay in school
While a college education statistically provides a better shot at obtaining wealth, it does not guarantee success. There are English majors who end up with convenience store careers. There are high school drop-outs who go on to run multi-million dollar corporations. But obtaining a college education improves your odds.

For some young adults, college can seem like a waste of time. (Or worse, a waste of money.) Other things seem more important. I had friends who dropped out of school to pursue girlfriends across the country. I had friends who were convinced they could make more money by skipping college altogether. Student loans can be so enormous that they make a person lose sight of the fact that they’re an almost guaranteed investment in the future.

I personally had problems finding a career path — I simply had no idea what I wanted to do. When I went entered college, I wanted to be a religion major. Then I wanted to be a writer. Then I wanted to be a grade school teacher. Ultimately I earned a psychology degree, which has had little direct benefit to my life. But the education I obtained, my campus experience, and the contacts I made have been invaluable. A large part of who I am today was forged by my experiences in college. The value of a college isn’t just in the destination, but in the journey.

In preparing this article, I relied heavily on the following sources:

How many of you attended college? Are you glad you did? If you didn’t get a degree, do you regret it? If you could talk to your 18-year-old self, what would you tell her? If I had a chance, I’d tell the young J.D.: “Set goals. Study more. Find a direction for life!”

Update: As usual, there are some great comments. Many have noted that education does not cause all these wonderful things — it’s simply correlated with them. (It may be that people who obtain an education would live longer even without one.) Also — and this is key — more important than education is doing what you love. Passion and drive can bring success, no matter what level of schooling you have.