Is College for Me?
By Kelly Burch
Deciding whether to go to college can be tough. College can help you learn how to navigate the world now that you’re out of high school. You may meet some really interesting people, make new friends, learn from others who have similar passions, and figure out areas in which you may want to build a career. College can be one of the surest ways to help you find a job and increase your chances of earning more money during your lifetime.
Yet college can also be extremely expensive. Student loan debt is a real thing to consider, and more people are questioning whether a degree is worth it. You are not alone if you are wondering, is college for me?
Having to make such a big choice before you even turn 18 can feel like a lot. Your caregivers may encourage you to continue your education or push you to start working right away. It’s totally understandable that many high schoolers are stressed and anxious about college before they even apply.
Ultimately, you’re the only one who can decide if college is right for you. Because it’s such a big decision, it’s one you should sit with. Here are a few things to consider as you think about your future.
There’s More Than One Type of Higher Education
Your vision of college may be full of dorm rooms, grassy quads, and in-person lectures, but that’s only one picture of what college can look like—and college is only one option for continuing your education. Getting more education or training after high school increases how much you’ll earn, on average, through your life, but a four-year degree isn’t the only option.
Here’s what higher education can look like:
- Bachelor’s degree: This degree typically requires four years of full-time schooling at a university or college. Students often live on or near campus, but that’s not required. This is usually the most expensive type of higher education. It’s the first step toward becoming a teacher, scientist, engineer, and many more careers.
- Associate degree: This is typically a two-year degree offered at community colleges. Most students live at home, not on campus. Many students work while they study part time at night, on weekends, or with remote classes. An associate degree can qualify you for jobs that pay well, such as dental hygienist, paralegal, HVAC technician, and many others. You can also transfer your credits and apply the work you’ve already done toward a bachelor’s degree.
- Trade school: If you know you want a hands-on career such as a hairdresser, mechanic, truck driver, or some health-care jobs, trade schools are a great option. With these programs, you’ll earn a certificate, not a degree. With this specialized training, however, you’ll earn more, on average, than people who didn’t do any higher education after high school.
- Apprenticeship: During an apprenticeship, you train directly under a mentor in the job you’re pursuing. Apprenticeships are most common in the trades, so they’re perfect if you want to become an electrician or plumber. They also happen in other careers though. You can apprentice as a chef or farm worker, for example. Usually you’re paid for your work, but often at a lower rate while you’re still in training. In the long run, you’ll earn more than people who have only a high school diploma or GED. Learn more about apprenticeships here.
Any Higher Education Can Help You Make More Money
Whether you do a plumbing internship or pursue an engineering degree, you’re learning specialized skills that most people don’t have—and people are usually willing to pay more for those skills. That’s why, overall, people with any sort of higher education (specific skills) make more than people who have only a high school diploma (general skills).
People with four-year college degrees generally earn more money than their peers who don’t go further than high school. Pew Research found a growing wage gap between young college grads and peers who don’t have degrees, with bachelor’s degrees earning an average of $22,000 more than high-school-only peers. Apprenticeships and trade schools increase your earning potential too.
Finances Are an Important Consideration
For many people, college costs more money than they’ve ever earned. That’s why about 70% of college students have to borrow money by the time they graduate to pay for their education. Even if you have financial aid or find an apprenticeship, you’re still taking away from time you could be working and earning money. That can feel overwhelming and sometimes scary.
Since we can’t see into the future, sometimes we can feel a bit anxious about whether it will all be worth it. More than half of people who have done some college say the benefits outweigh the cost, but about one in five people say the costs were higher than the benefits.
Grants, Loans, and Scholarships Can Help You Manage the Cost of College
If you want to go to college, there are lots of resources to help you pay for your education. Financial aid can be either needs-based (which means it’s based on your financial situation) or merit-based (which means it’s given because you’re really good at something like academics, music, or sports).
There are different components to financial aid:
- Grants are money that doesn’t need to be paid back. They often come from the government, but may come from your school or other organizations.
- Loans are money that you borrow and must repay in the future. Loans from the government are the most affordable, while private student loans cost much more.
- Scholarships are a type of grant, usually from your school or another organization. Not all scholarships are for sports or good grades, although those are great if you can get them. You can get scholarships for lots of reasons, including because you:
- Play an instrument
- Plan to study a certain subject
- A member of a religious or community group
- Live in a certain area
- Are a first-generation college student
- Are from a military family
- Have parents who work for certain companies
Get more information on applying for financial aid and use the resources below as well:
- The FAFSA is a free form you can use to apply for most student aid.
- The government provides tips for reducing the cost of college.
- Websites like the U.S. Bureau of Labor’s Scholarship Search Tool or Scholarships.com can help you apply for a range of unique scholarships, such as one given to people who are particularly tall.
- Resources for first-generation college students, which means your parents do not have four-year degrees.
- QuestBridge is a national nonprofit helping low-income students apply to the most competitive colleges.
Questions to Help You Decide If College Is Right for You
When you’re deciding whether college or another type of higher education is right for you, consider these questions:
- What are you concerned about? Only one in three people who don’t have a college degree say they just didn’t want one. There’s usually another issue, such as money or family responsibilities, holding them back. Once you name the things you’re worried about, you can see if there are solutions that can address your valid concerns and still help you move forward.
- What’s your big dream? Research has found that teens who are worried about paying for college have lower aspirations about their education than teens who aren’t concerned about money. Rather than limit your goals, think about what you really want. You can then work on finding ways to achieve that, even if they’re not conventional.
- What do you want? Whether you’re the first in your family to graduate high school or you come from a family of legacies, chances are your parents or other adults in your life have opinions about college. Your teachers, friends, and coworkers do too. But what’s most important is what you want.