I hear from a lot of people your age—and therefore a lot of people wrestling with the very same problem. Since I’ve had plenty of practice at it, I’m happy to share my thoughts with you.

In the era I grew up in (nearly half a century ago), getting a college degree was almost like getting vaccinated. It was something you HAD to do if you had career expectations of any kind (as opposed to being merely a blue-collar worker).

At that time, it was an established fact that degreed persons immediately began earning more money and were assured of higher lifetime earnings. In this sense, a bachelor’s degree was a professional degree of a sort; it immediately distinguished you and put you in the white-collar class that was inaccessible to mere high-school graduates.

Things are different now, as I’m sure you know. Just having a bachelor’s degree doesn’t automatically put you on the high road to success. A bachelor’s degree won’t automatically put you financially ahead of high-school graduates or assure you of higher lifetime earnings.

To make matters even worse, today’s graduates often begin their working careers burdened with heavy student-loan debts. A bachelor’s degree isn’t any kind of professional degree now, unless you major in education; even so, to advance in a teaching career, you’ll eventually have to get a master’s degree.

This is the main difference between then and now: a mere bachelor’s degree is just not as valuable as it once was—unless of course you go on to other studies that WILL lead to a professional degree. If it’s your ultimate desire to become a lawyer, a social worker, an anthropologist, a physicist, a medical doctor, a veterinarian, or a college-level teacher, then of course the bachelor’s degree is a necessary prerequisite to more advanced degrees.

Probably the most useful rule-of-thumb I can offer is this: you’ll never regret HAVING a bachelor’s degree, but at some later stage your life you might conceivably regret NOT having a bachelor’s degree. This becomes germane in the context of your current progress toward a degree. For example, if you’re only a year or a semester away from graduation, then it would be shame to quit when you’re so close.

The choice is harder if you’re two years away; you’ve got a lot invested, but you’ve still got a long way to go. If you’re three years away, the choice may actually be easier, since you have little invested. And of course if you haven’t even begun college, then you have no investment at all and can make your decision without this distraction.

The worst reason people have for going to college (in my opinion) is a vague notion that they SHOULD; they have no specific reason for doing so, they just have a feeling that they might be missing something, might be humanly less complete if they don’t. (Kids whose parents didn’t go to college themselves are especially vulnerable to this reasoning.)

I would speculate that nine out of ten people who go to college for this reason come away feeling that they wasted their time and money, that their college experience wasn’t nearly as enriching as they expected it to be. This isn’t to say that it ISN’T enriching—for some, at least.

Even encountering one excellent teacher can be a life-changing experience. Many people discover in college a direction in which to take their lives that they might otherwise have missed; they might have gone in expecting nothing but a liberal arts degree but along the way discover a passion for astrophysics or biochemistry that will take them all the way through a doctoral program.

Obviously no one but you can make the final decision, but maybe these observations will give you some new ways of thinking about it.

ID: 557
posted: 27 Apr 2002