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Making the Grade: Is College Worth It?

Why what you study matters more than where you go

May 2022


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Graduation Day. It’s one of those memories that lasts a lifetime.

After years of hard work, you finally get that college degree — and the keys to a better future.

Except, hang on, there’s something important missing from this picture: most Americans.

Because more than 2/3 of us … never have this experience.i

Yeah, you don’t hear that part too often. And the fact that we’re all trying to ignore that little detail … is getting us in a lot of trouble.


What does it take to have a successful career? For many people, the answer probably involves getting a college degree.

In fact, it seems like a lot of politicians think that should be the answer for everybody.

Now, not everyone’s buying this line. As you may have noticed, a lot of people no longer think that college is especially valuable.

So, which is it? Is a college education a necessary prerequisite to getting a good job? Or a waste of time and money?

Well, the answer is … it depends. And anyone who tells you otherwise is only giving you part of the story.

At some point, you’ve probably heard a statistic like this: If you get a bachelor’s degree, you’ll make twice as much money over the course of your career compared to someone who just has a high school diploma.ii

Now, those numbers are real, but what do they actually mean? After all, everyone’s circumstances are different. There are people who never went to college who are making more money than people who went to law school.

So, here’s what we learn when we dig a little deeper into the research:

First, what you study in college really matters. In fact, it tends to matter more than where you go to school. iii If you get a degree in something like engineering, computer science, nursing, or economics you have a good shot at increasing your lifetime income by half a million dollars.iv

If, by contrast, you get a degree in something like art, music, philosophy, or psychology … there’s a pretty significant chance that you’re going to be worse off financially than if you’d never gone to college at all.v

Yeah, they don’t put that in the brochure.

Now, of course, money isn’t everything. And the numbers might look different if you go on to grad school. But those are all things to think about before making a decision about college. Because there can be lots of complications along the way.

For instance, many degrees that would be valuable if you finished them in four years … won’t be worth what you paid for them if they take you five or six years to And that’s worth knowing, because the proportion of college students who finish their degree in four years … is less than half.vii

And if you drop out of college … you’re virtually guaranteed to be worse off financially than if you had never gone at all.viii In fact, for all the horror stories about people with huge student loans, the individuals who are least likely to be able to pay off their debt … are the ones who owe $5,000 or lessix — because they’re overwhelmingly people who took out loans for degrees they never finished.

Not only does this mean that individuals need to be careful when making decisions about college, it also means that policymakers probably need to be more responsible too. After all, why would we push everyone to go to college when we know it doesn’t meet a lot of people’s needs?

Only about 31 percent of high school students go on to finish a college degree. And only 18 percent finish a degree and then end up in a job that actually requires it.x In other words, our system of higher education — which we pour about $200 billion worth of taxpayer money into every yearxi — is only really serving about one-fifth of the population.

So, what about everyone else? Well, there are already some good options. Certain fields that don’t require a college education pay better than those that do. For example, someone who repairs elevators for a living … is going to make more money on average than someone with an English degree.xii

(As if having to have read Finnegan’s Wake wasn’t already punishment enough.)

But if the question is how to create more opportunities for people who aren’t college-bound than we should probably…

…OK, look it pains us to say this as much as it pains you to hear it…


…we should probably be more like Europe.

In most developed countries in the world, they rely less on academic training and more heavily on vocational education — teaching people the skills they’ll need to go into the workforce.xiii

And … it kinda seems like this is what Americans want too. Sixty-two percent of students who didn’t get a bachelor’s degree said they would have rather had a three-year apprenticeship than a fully funded college education. And, in fact, so did nearly 30 percent of people who did get a degree.xiv

Yes, college can be great … for certain people pursuing certain careers. But going to college when it’s not right for you — can have hugely negative consequences. Which is a good argument for creating better options for those who don’t want to stay in a classroom.

Don’t worry, we don’t have to give the Europeans credit. We’ll just say we thought of it ourselves. Like we always do.


  1. A Guide to College-for-All — American Compass 
  2. Major Decisions: What Graduates Earn Over Their Lifetimes (Kristen Broady, Brad Hershbein— Brookings Institution
  3. Is College Worth It? A Comprehensive Return on Investment Analysis (Preston Cooper) — Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Digest of Education Statistics — National Center for Education Statistics
  8. Is College Worth It? A Comprehensive Return on Investment Analysis (Preston Cooper) — Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity
  9. "Forgive Student Loans, but Only a Little" (Beth Akers) — Wall Street Journal
  10. A Guide to College-for-All — American Compass
  11. Ibid.
  12. Occupational Outlook Handbook (Field of Degree: English) — U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
  13. A Guide to College-for-All — American Compass
  14. Ibid.


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  1. American Compass
    A Guide to College-for-All 
  2. Brookings Institution
    Major Decisions: What Graduates Earn Over Their Lifetimes (Kristen Broady, Brad Hershbein)
  3. Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity
    Is College Worth It? A Comprehensive Return on Investment Analysis (Preston Cooper)
  4. National Center for Education Statistics
    Digest of Education Statistics
  5. Wall Street Journal
    "Forgive Student Loans, but Only a Little" (Beth Akers)
  6. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
    Occupational Outlook Handbook (Field of Degree: English)

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