Does College Pay Off?: The Long-Term Benefits

Illustration showing two teens trying to decide a direction for their lives. A sign stands between them with directional arrows pointing in opposite directions. One direction points to college and career, the other points to work and job.
Rebecca Gibbon

FREE! Download College: A Guide for Parents and Teens and help your kids prepare for their next academic adventure.

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"Why would I want to go to college and rack up $40,000 in school loans?" Jake told his mom, after she mentioned — again — that he needed to get serious about filling out college applications. "I won't make that much more than my friends who just get a job."

Rising costs 

Like Jake, many of today's young people are uncertain about college. It's no surprise, since all we read or hear about are the inflated costs of tuition, huge burden of debt and stories of 20-somethings with postgraduate degrees working at McDonald's.

No wonder Jake doesn't want to go to college. His understanding about the rising costs and huge debt burden are right on the money (pardon the pun). Room, board, tuition and fees have increased significantly in the last few decades (by a total of 260 percent between 1980 and 2014). And the debt for college graduates has more than doubled in the last three years alone. The class of 2016 entered adulthood with their diplomas and a hefty average of $37,172 in student loan debt (compared to $18,271 in 2013). These numbers can seem overwhelming.

But as former radio commentator Paul Harvey used to say, "Now ... for the rest of the story."

Salary gaps

The truth is most college grads are not working at McDonald's, especially those who graduated with a job-focused degree — teachers, engineers, accountants — and others who have the necessary education for a specific career. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently showed a huge gap between incomes when you compare current educational attainment. For example, in 2015 a person with a bachelor's degree made an average of $1,989 more per month than someone with just a high school diploma. (Pop quiz: How long does it take to pay off a $40,000 school loan with $2,000 a month in extra income?)

I recently met with two young people who were in their early 20s. One was a college grad working full time for a church, and the other was a high school grad who was complaining that he couldn't find anything but minimum-wage jobs. The college grad was recently offered a job for $43,000 a year. The high school grad was barely earning $20,000 — if he could get 40 hours per week. His friend who dropped out of high school was making even less.

Talk about it

These are the dialogues we need to engage in with our kids. So when you encounter an article or news report offering insightful information that impacts their future, consider sharing it with your kids at dinner or at a time when you can engage with them. Then ask a simple question like, "Which of these roads looks better to you?" or "How relevant is this to your situation?"

These can be good conversation springboards as you help your teens figure out those important next steps into adulthood.

Jonathan McKee is the author of If I Had a Parenting Do Over.
This article first appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Focus on the Family magazine and was originally titled "Does College Pay Off?" If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family's marriage and parenting magazine. Get this publication delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.
© 2017 by Jonathan McKee. Used by permission.

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