Why You Should Look Beyond the Degree When Considering College

 Did you know that only 3.2% of college graduates faced unemployment in August 2014, compared to 6.2% (nearly double that amount) of those with just a high school education?

There’s a constant debate happening over whether or not college is worth the cost. With tuition rising steadily, and student loans reaching overwhelming amounts, many high school students are forgoing the traditional 4 year route of higher education.

However, depending on the field you’re in, that may or may not be a smart move. Degrees do come in handy, but they’re not the end all be all.

College also has additional benefits beyond the piece of paper you graduate with.

Let’s take a look at what graduates have to say about their college experience in relation to the cost.

College Opens up Opportunities

William Belz, a Web Specialist at the University of Buffalo (UB), knows he is where he is today because of his college education:

"Having my degree definitely opened up opportunities for me. I wouldn’t be able to work in my current position without a degree, as it is required.

"I am a supporter of education (formalized, as well as continuing education and self-taught             methods). You can be on either side of an educational debate, but sometimes, it boils down to         needing a degree in order to have the career you want. At times, far more real-world experience         and knowledge is gained on-the-job, but a solid basis and understanding is necessary to                   perform your best."

The fact that college presents you with more opportunities is very valuable. Once you graduate, you’ll be depending on your network in order to obtain a job. Most of the time, it’s who you know, not what you know.

College Exposes You to Other Cultures

College does more than simply prepare you for a career.

It’s also a highly formative period of your life that teaches you valuable lessons about who you are and how you fit into the world around you.

Jillian Reading, a Senior Academic Advisor for the School of Public Health and Health Professionals at UB, knows she wouldn’t have the job she has today without her Master’s degree (it’s required for her position). But more than that, she adds:

"I learned more than I could ever tell you in college. Some of it was in the classroom, and some of it was outside. I remember living in a residence hall my first year of undergrad and being exposed to students who were so different from me – one was from India, one was gay, several were African American, some were conservative, others were liberal. All of them had an effect on the person I am today.

"Inside the classroom, I was taught how to analyze information and make an informed choice. I was taught about issues of diversity during my Master’s training that I know I wouldn’t have been exposed to in any other setting. College also taught me how to stay committed to something to the end – it’s a four-year test of commitment and endurance, of how much you want something. It’s not about the academics in most cases; it’s more about learning how to think critically, understand diversity, understand yourself, and get exposure to ideas and people you wouldn’t otherwise."

Critical thinking is an essential skill taught throughout college that serves any graduate well, especially outside the classroom.

If you’ve been sheltered much of your life, and haven’t done much traveling, you might be in for a surprise when it comes to your roommates or suitemates. It’s important to learn to be accepting and forgiving of others, and this is best learned in college, when you’re all on campus together. There’s no room (or time) for negativity.

Jamie Ernst, a Quality Assurance Lab Technician, agrees:

As far as valuable life lessons, college taught me time management and, when there was not enough time to manage everything, it taught me to prioritize and learn to cut out less important things. Would I have learned these things if I followed a different path? Probably. But I value the friends I made in college, and learning to live on my own for the first time.

College can teach us much more than we signed up for. Learning how to stay on task and prioritize will absolutely help in any job, and fostering a sense of independence early on will only benefit you.

Make Sure You’re Getting Your Money’s Worth

You should also get clear on what your income potential will be from your college and major. As Ernst has come to realize:

Debt was not worth it for my degree. If I would’ve chosen a degree like nursing, with a specific well-paying job path to fall into, it would’ve been worth it.

But my degree did not help me get a better job. [My company] prefers a college degree for my job position, but they don’t pay like we have one. Many people at my company don’t have degrees, but are the same pay grade as me, minus all the loan debt.

To consider whether or not your degree and field of study is worth the money you’re paying, visit http://collegecost.ed.gov. This website will help you find the best value for your college requirements (your major, the location, the size of the school, etc.).

Stephanie Halligan, a cartoonist and money expert who runs Art to Self and The Empowered Dollar, hits the nail on the head:

It’s so hard to gauge whether my student loan debt was worth it. It helped me pay for my college education and ultimately, having a college degree landed me my first job out of college. I would not have gotten hired without a B.A., and I would not have been able to build the career I have today without that first job.

But could I have gone to a less expensive school to get my B.A.? Could I have been smarter about how I paid for college and not wound up with over $30,000 in student loan debt? Absolutely. So my college education was incredibly valuable, but not $30,000 in debt valuable.

There are plenty of others out there who feel similarly. Unfortunately, students aren’t adequately being prepared for college or the amount of student loan debt they’ll face upon graduating. Many simply attend college because they see it as the next logical step in life, failing to question any other alternatives.

Rethink Your Approach to College

It all comes down to rethinking how you approach paying for college. Don’t assume you can rely solely on loans. Find other ways of financing your education first, and use student loans as a last resort.

There are plenty of scholarships and grants you can apply for that will shave hundreds or thousands off the cost of tuition. Consider attending community college for a year or two to get basic courses out of the way, and paying for classes in cash.

If you’re having doubts about your declared major, it could be a good idea to wait and see if things change in a year or so. There’s also nothing wrong with having a gap year between graduation and going back to school – you should make every effort to make this as worthwhile as possible.

After all, there’s no reason to rush into getting a college education. Would you rather end up owing a large amount on your student loans, unhappy and unfulfilled? Or would you rather make a conscious decision, saving yourself money and guilt in the process?

Only you can determine the best course of action for yourself. Don’t be afraid to challenge conventional wisdom and question whether or not college, in its traditional sense, is right for you.