Is Four-Year College a Good Deal Anymore? 4 Reasons Why It Might Not Be

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The concept of “sticker shock” is all too real for parents shopping for colleges on their kids’ behalf. And for kids themselves, who often end up saddled with the bill.

Yet millions of parents and students still believe that four-year college is the best path forward. They worry that if they don’t invest in “traditional” higher education, they’ll miss out on the best job opportunities and reduce their lifetime earning potential.

Are they correct? More and more, it seems like the answer is no. If you’re a parent or kid looking ahead to life after high school, here’s how to think about this question and assess the potential alternatives to four-year college.

1. More High-Paying Jobs of the Future Won’t Require a Four-Year Degree

Many employment experts — and people who do plenty of hiring themselves — believe that a greater share of higher-paying jobs won’t require a four-year degree in the future. Not just “living-wage” jobs, mind you: jobs that pay $50 or more per hour and allow workers to live comfortable, middle- to upper-middle-class lives in the place of their choosing.

These are the sorts of jobs that might require a six- or twelve-month certificate, or simply a few months of on-the-job training. The shift will be particularly noticeable in manufacturing and trades fields, where engineers could find themselves competing with non-college-graduates.

“People who work with their hands are about to have much more economic clout,” says Steve Streit, who founded fintech unicorn Green Dot and now runs SWS Venture Capital.

2. Tuition Costs Keep Outpacing Inflation

In an excellent 2014 article about the costs and benefits of higher education, CNN education writer Annalyn Kurtz argued that four-year college is still a good deal.

The problem is, higher education costs have increased since 2014. By a lot more than the overall inflation rate during that period. Even now, with inflation falling but still high by recent historical standards, tuition is increasing by more than double the rate of price hikes across the broader economy.

At some point, it’s just not worth it anymore. For many prospective college students, that point could already be here.

3. Student Debt Is Increasingly Burdensome

Say what you will about “knowing what you’re getting into” and “taking personal responsibility.” The fact is, education debt is increasingly burdensome for students whose parents can’t cover their tuition bills. 

It’s not just about being able to afford weekly nights out or morning lattes. Student debt holds graduates back by making it more difficult to afford housing, transportation, and other necessities of life. With few prospects for widespread debt relief on the horizon, prospective college students face tough choices.

4. Degrees Aren’t (Always) As Valuable As Before

In the recent past, basically any college degree was an endorsement of the degree holder’s ability to do higher-level work. It wasn’t quite a free pass to hire them regardless of their other qualifications, but it wasn’t too far off from that either.

Those days are over. Today, elite colleges and top state universities still have some pull with employers. But many others don’t. It’s more difficult for prospective students to pick the winners and more competitive for those who do choose to apply. That leads some to throw up their hands and look for alternative paths to stable careers.

Do What’s Right For You Now

We can talk about trends and expectations all day long, but at the end of the day, the decision to invest in higher education (or not) is a personal one. It’s made with the information at your disposal now, not through a crystal ball. 

This means that what feels like a good choice not could turn out to be anything but in the future. Don’t let this fact of life get into your head. Think about what you hope to achieve with your life and go from there.

In short, do what’s right for you now. You can adjust later, if you have to.