The term “worth” can mean many types of values: monetary, personal or something measured by the esteem at which it is held. So what worth does a college education have? Is it worth the money for the education, experience or degree?

According to the Pew Research Center, a whopping 57 percent of college students claim that they are unhappy with what they receive in return for paying for a college education. However, among college graduates, 86 percent agree that they benefit from the personal experience. At what cost is the experience worth the money?

Why attend college?

There are conflicting opinions on the subject of pursuing a career right after high school graduation rather than packing up for college in the fall. After all, the non-traditional route of skipping college completely or becoming a college drop-out has worked for many people including Rachel Ray, Steven Spielberg, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.

While some people have the determination and will to succeed in their careers without the help of a degree, others blame lack of financial support for inhibiting their choice to obtain a college education. The growing college enrollment lessens the available financial aid funding per student, and therefore, hinders the 48 percent of non-enrolled students the Pew report found could not afford to continue their education. Also, some 34 percent of high school graduates claimed that higher education was not necessary for their career.

Apart from the number of students incapable of attending college for financial reasons or those without the need for college, there are also students who lack direction. Former UTSA student Bronwen Kinzler-Britton left college for an internship opportunity in Los Angeles. “I was kind of itching for something different. Also, I had no idea if what I was going to school for was even what I wanted to do for a living,” Kinzler-Britton says. “I feel bad going to school and spending thousands of dollars on something I don’t necessarily want to do.”

Like many people in her situation, Kinzler-Britton muses that she may not be a “school person.” However, career-seekers should consider the job market statistics for those without a college degree.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for high school graduates without college experience, as of December 2012, is 8.1 percent compared to the 3.8 percent unemployment rate for college graduates with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Even among those who have college experience or a two-year degree, the unemployment rate is still remarkably higher — 6.7 percent.

Some high school graduates may believe the job market is too small and saturated with those carrying a college degree to spend time and money in college. People with that opinion jump right into the career field with what they believe is a four-year head start.

But does that head start pay off when it comes to lifetime salaries? Most surveys report an overwhelming “NO.” The Pew report agrees with the majority, claiming that the average college graduate in a 40-year period earns about $650,000 more than the average high school graduate.

The Pew Research Center calculated that the total earnings for a college graduate is estimated at $1.42 million versus the $770,000 of a high school graduate, producing a net earnings of $650,000. Then, subtracting an average of college tuition cost, not including room and board, at $6,000 and foregone earnings of $94,000, a bachelor’s degree graduate has a net payoff of $550,000 more than that of a student who foregoes a higher education.

However, it is inevitable that exceptions do exist. Selected college majors and particular job market predictions, as well as the amount of loans necessary, all depend on personal circumstances and career goals.

Kinzler-Britton says this about college education: “While I do think college is a great opportunity and obviously has even greater benefits, I definitely believe that college just isn’t for everyone. I have known some incredible successful people who never went to college and are so content with life.”

Pay Up

The attitude toward completing a college degree is one that changes with perspective, from teacher to student to parent. According to the Pew report, 94 percent of parents assume their child will attend college.

So, if the student decides to attend college, the question becomes; how to pay for it? Only 22 percent of Americans believe that college is affordable; that number has been dropping since 1985.

While 48 percent of the public believe the student or his or her family should cover the biggest burden of college expenses, 31 percent believe that it is the responsibility of either the federal or state government.

Eric Cooper, Ph.D., director of Student Enrollment Services, states that within UTSA, 65-70 percent of students rely on financial aid. He claims that there is a higher percentage of high-need students at UTSA than any other campus in the UT system.

“UTSA has always been a school of access,” says Cooper. “We’re always interested in helping students come to college and afford it.”

Consequently, the increasing dependence on financial aid and student loans leads to an increase in overall student debt after graduation. The report finds that student loan debt, is on average, a little over $20,000 per family.

With that impending debt, 27 percent of college graduates are working full-time jobs, yet underemployed, according to the Huffington Post. And with an underemployed job, it would take more than 20 years to pay off college debts.

Cooper stresses the importance of graduating in a timely manner, which, traditionally, is four years. Every additional year adds weight to post-college debts and, in some cases, financial aid may become unavailable. “The federal government is really stressing that financial aid is a contract. They expect you to earn your degree in a timely manner. Legislation is changing to make sure students aren’t taking advantage of the financial aid system,” he says.

Additionally, 48 percent of graduates with student loans claim that debt has made it harder to pay other bills or make ends meet. Twenty-four percent of those with loans also admit that the debt has had an impact on the type of career they pursued. It is a difficult situation to imagine that college debt is driving the future, rather than the dreams that brought students to pursue an education in the first place.

So is the diploma worth it with debt attached? As previously discussed, the Pew report finds in favor of the graduate, who will ultimately make enough money to pay off loans and still earn a greater amount than a non-graduate. It’s hard to say yes or no, since many variables factor into the final outcome.

One thing is for sure though: the price of college tuition and fees are continuing to climb and show no sign of slowing. College Board reports tuition and fees have increased 27 percent over the rate of inflation in the last five years alone.

Changing Attitudes

Despite the recipe for success that many college institution seem to offer, the low expectation of the job market combined with the debt that more and more students seem to find unbearable is becoming a threat to the esteemed worth of a college education. Twenty-six percent of workers believe that they would make the same money if they had a degree, while 22 percent of those with a degree believe they would make the same amount without one. While this is not the majority opinion, high school graduates increasingly take alternate routes to careers.

Kinzler-Britton warns, “I am a big believer in taking some time after high school before going to a university. I wish I had. There is no rush; a degree will always be there.”

Non-traditional companies like Google and Zappos are taking advantage of the creative generation. There is a shift from linear, ladder-climbing careers to multiple movements between professions. Gone are the days of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. suits and ties. They have been replaced with themed dress-up days, laptops and nap rooms.

As previously stated, 86 percent of college graduates believe that the college experience was not only an educational experience, but one of personal growth as well.

“I definitely think that a college education is worth something if not just the knowledge you gain, but also the experiences you have,” says Kinzler-Britton. “I had some of the most fun while I was in school at UTSA and met some of the absolute best people. I think that it is really unfortunate how expensive it has gotten to go to college.”

Of graduates who annually earn more than $50,000, 91 percent believe college was a good investment. That percentage drops to 73 percent for those earning less than $50,000. In other terms, the more a graduate makes, the more they contribute their salary to their college education. Nevertheless, non-college graduates can still achieve high-paying jobs with the right connections.

Diploma as a Door Opener

UTSA’s Career Center determined that 35-48 percent of graduates got their jobs through networking. According to Morris Ellington, project manager for the Career Center, “Networking and building a network of professional contacts is crucial. ‘It’s not what you do; it’s who you know’ that really helps in this modern job market.” And this networking comes from determined students who force their foot in a door. “Employers like to see experience in a related field and look for internships. The more the better. One is good; two is awesome,” he says. Internships can be a good foundation to start networking.

Like most college campuses, UTSA offers students something valuable — a place to help them make important life-changing connections. As Ellington says, “There are so many ways that we can connect students and employers together.”

In the modern job market, it may not be the particular diploma that employers look at, but how a student spent his or her time achieving it.

Cooper also urges students to be mindful of their grades. “I think more employers will look at a transcript versus a diploma. Bad grades and more W’s on a transcript will raise red flags.”

Does Cooper think a degree is necessary? “I do, but maybe I’m not the average person. I was a first generation college student, but I also received a master’s and a doctoral degree. I wouldn’t be where I am right now without a college degree.”

Ultimately, college comes with a hefty price tag but also with opportunities and experiences.

Kinzler-Britton says, “There are so many positives that come from a college education. It’s actually hard to see many negative things that stem from getting a degree — other than the hole it leaves in your pocket.”

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