I never thought twice about going to college. I stressed about grades in middle school so I could get good placement in high school, then stressed about how those grades would impact my chances at admission. It seemed like everything I did was for the purpose of my resume, and this was before I even knew what I was going to study. Growing up, it never seemed like I would consider another option. Then I got here, and I saw article after article where economists are putting the value of a college degree into question. All of a sudden, I had to question the value of the thing I have been working toward for the last quarter of my life.
I know I’m not alone, and certainly not the first college student to doubt themselves, but statistics are statistics. These articles started to impact my confidence, and raised an important question: Should I value my experience in university?
In 2021, 61.8 percent of U.S. high schoolers enrolled in college directly after graduation. This is a drop from 2016, when colleges opened their doors to 69.7 percent of recent grads. This could be the fault of several factors—economic downturn and struggles with online education due to the COVID-19 pandemic are among the challenges today’s students still face which may discourage them from attending university, but is that enough to explain such a significant decline? What is scaring students away from enrollment?
The numbers are, generally, still in favor of the pursuit of a college degree: The average lifetime earnings of graduates holding an Associate’s degree are $1,727,000 and $2,268,000 for Bachelor’s degree holders compared to $1,304,000 for high school graduates. However, in the past 30 years, average nationwide tuition has climbed from $21,860 to $39,400 yearly at private, nonprofit, four-year institutions like Drexel. A steep number for students paying upfront, and even steeper for those who take out loans with today’s predatory interest rates. So, sure, workers make more with a college degree, but what percentage of that salary is offset by the cost of the degree itself?
This difference in how much you spend and how much you make is referred to as a return on investment or an ROI, and it is a hot topic for college-focused economists. Economists have begun to refer to the pursuit of a college degree as a gamble. Depending on how much a student is spending on their degree, the type of university they attend and the program they’re pursuing, the odds of making more than they would have with their high school diploma shift. A college degree may no longer be the career insurance it once was, so what is making current matriculated students so willing to roll the dice?
“I think what makes college worth it is knowing that at the end of your four- or five-year program that you come out with the experience and knowledge of what you want to do. That’s not needed for all jobs,” third year nursing major, Aiden Greene, told me. “Nursing is a bit different; you have to go to college. Some things you can build your own success, but other jobs you need the knowledge behind it.”
Kaitlyn Mercado, a third year global studies major concentrating in global health and in the BRIDGE program to pursue a master’s degree in public health, shares these sentiments.
“In order to get the certain job I want, you kind of need a degree. It sucks, because college is so expensive, but that’s a reality for a lot of people,” said Mercado.
“My parents didn’t go to college,” Mercado explained, “so as a first-generation student, it was one of those things where they were like, you have the opportunity, so you should do it.”
Moreover, in 2021, 38.4 percent of “entry-level” jobs posted on LinkedIn required a few years of relevant experience. This is a reality that puts Drexel graduates ahead of the game, with the unique experiential learning model that many of the students I spoke to cited as their reason for choosing the school.
“So you hear people who have a degree, but no work experience. You see offers for jobs with little to no pay but expect two years of experience. How’s that possible? The opportunity to do co-op was really important to me,” said Mercado.
Mercado also cited the BRIDGE and study abroad programs as reasons why she valued Drexel.
Greene promoted the co-op program as his reason for choosing Drexel but lamented the drawbacks of such a rigorous schedule.
“10-week terms are quick, and draining, too. You go from six months of school to six months of working, there’s no downtime,” Greene commented.“There’s no buffer, it’s just like working in the real world.”
Though many students share this viewpoint, second-year health services and psychology double major Jordana Benblatt feels that Drexel is worth it for her because of “the location, the friends I’ve made and reconnected with and the things I’m able to study. I’ve changed my major a few times and every time I did, Drexel had what I wanted. I’ve met such amazing people I never thought I would and, as hard as it can be sometimes, I wouldn’t change this experience I’m having.”
It’s certainly important to look at the numbers when making any financial decision, but unlike purchasing a car or a phone, a degree is more than just a piece of paper you pay for to show employers they should hire you. Like all education, your college classes serve to teach you more than the content you are tested on. You learn important skills like how to manage your time, how to educate yourself, how to deal with difficult situations, how to balance work and your social life and, of course, how to make lasting, meaningful connections with people of all ages. For some people, though not all, it is a necessary exposure to people of other backgrounds beyond the microcosm of high school. Enrolling in higher education is not the path all people should take, nor is it a path with a set timeline or a rite of passage. It is hard work, a major financial burden, and yes, in some ways a gamble. As someone who looks at hard facts and numbers for everything, and someone with increasing anxiety about the economic state of the world as well as the job hunt, I try to remind myself that there is more to consider than your first salary out of college when determining the worth of your experience. Computing your college ROI is a complicated equation with more than one outcome and plenty of other important factors like completion of the degree in question, the employability of the degree, how you specialize yourself, the kind of worker you are and what you plan to do with your time here.
“A degree makes you stand out,” said Greene, as we wrapped up our conversation. “All people should have a chance at college. Some people are like, ‘it’s not for me,’ and that’s fine, but everyone should have the chance to come here and be able to learn if they want to.”