Skip to main content
Blog Post

How Should Students Think About College?


January 29, 2024

In recent years, there has been a marked decline in public confidence in higher education, sparking debate on the value of a bachelor’s degree. In a new report published by AEI’s Center on Opportunity and Social Mobility, we seek to add some much-needed nuance to an increasingly go/no-go debate.

Despite public perception, the bachelor’s degree continues to have great economic and noneconomic value. Data shows that degree holders enjoy a significant advantage in lifetime earnings. On average, bachelor’s degree holders earn more than $1 million more over their lifetime compared to those with only a high school diploma. 

These economic benefits extend across various industries and sectors. While the earnings gap between those with and without a bachelor’s degree is particularly pronounced in fields like technology, engineering, and business management, those with degrees in the humanities or social sciences also enjoy a significant earnings advantage.

College graduates also have notably higher employment rates than those with only a high school degree and are less likely to be laid off in a recession. In addition to contributing to wealth accumulation, these degrees are associated with improved health outcomes, greater civic engagement, and higher rates of marriage. Degree holders are also more likely to report higher levels of job satisfaction. These factors contribute not just to personal advancement but also to more cohesive, economically vibrant, and resilient communities.

While the average benefit of a bachelor’s degree is significant, it is far from uniform. Individual circumstances heavily influence outcomes. As the price of college has risen dramatically in the past few decades, the cost of starting but not finishing has increased. Individuals need to weigh the decision carefully to avoid the double-negative of no degree and student loan debt. This “propensity to complete” is perhaps the most important variable. Without it, the time and money spent pursuing a degree may not be worth it. 

Fundamentally, we need a more student-centered approach to post-secondary decision-making, one that takes into account population-level averages but focuses on individual preferences, abilities, and resources. With “learn a trade” rapidly becoming the new “go to college,” we need to step back from a directive approach to post-secondary decision-making and work alongside students through family conversations, guidance counseling, and mentoring as they decide what’s best for them.