Students returning to or entering college in the fall can look forward to some of the highest tuition rates in recent years. A number of institutions in the area, including Boston University, UMass, Boston College, and Harvard University have announced tuition increases for the upcoming academic year.
We asked Boston.com readers if they thought getting a college degree was worth it even with the ballooning cost of higher education, and readers said the answer wasn’t so black and white. Of the 129 readers who responded to our a poll, most said the value of college depends on factors like where you go to school and your expected return on investment.
“If college is a clear and only path to the student’s career such as nursing or engineering, then yes,” said Sharon from Newton. “But not for nebulous degrees without likely job opportunities [like] liberal arts.”
The cost of college at both public and private colleges has increased exponentially over the last decade. Between 2010 and 2020, the cost of attendance has grown 39.9% at public colleges and 44.2% at private, according to the Education Data Initiative. These rising costs are starting to dissuade students from pursuing college altogether.
The likelihood of a graduating high school student attending a four-year school sank from 71% to 51% in the last two years, according to a recent study by education nonprofit ECMC Group. More young people are instead opting for vocational training programs, a move supported by several Boston.com readers.
“We need more highly trained workers who are skilled in the basic trades — roofing, mechanical, plumbing, electrical, carpentry — not academic types who major in gender studies, social work, media, etc.,” said Steve from Lexington. “There is no way I would take on six-figure debt for these academic degrees.”
One million fewer Americans are attending college since the start of the pandemic, in part because of the costs and inaccessibility of higher education, but the trend could have negative long-term impacts on those individuals. While it isn’t a guarantee in every field, people with more education generally earn more than those without. A bachelor’s degree holder earns 75% more than if they only a high school diploma, according to a Georgetown University study.
“College is worth it for the education. However, you do not have to attend an $80,000 a year school to get a good four-year undergraduate degree,” said Patrick from Wilmington. “There are nearly 4,000 institutions, public and private, in the US.. alone. Shop around to find the best fit.”
Mary Ellen R. from Cambridge said, “Higher education system and access to college, for ALL, needs a major overhaul.” She and her husband were both first-generation college students and are still paying off their student loans 22 years after graduating.
“Student loan debt is crushing. Not only are we unable to cover all of the costs of our children’s college tuition, we are still in repayment of ours, so are hard-pressed to encourage them to take out student loan debt that will likely be a burden to them for decades after receiving an undergraduate degree,” she said. “I recommend that any young person at this time, seek vocational study, a certification program or branch out on their own as entrepreneurs.”
College costs continue to rise, leaving many Americans weighing the options for themselves and their children. Readers shared their thoughts on if, and when, a college degree is worth the cost. Below you’ll find a sampling of their responses.
Some entries may be edited for length and clarity.
Is college still worth the cost?
“If you are working towards a degree that will pay a good living wage, then it is worth the cost.” — Ron, Tewksbury
“Students and their families need to pay more attention to their specific situations and needs when deciding to go to college. Paying $80,000 per year to major in a subject with an average salary of $30,000 makes no sense. They should also focus on colleges that provide the best value for them. Just because you get into BU or any other well-known prestigious school doesn’t necessarily mean you should attend. If there is another school that has a program in your major at half the cost that is just as successful at placing students in their desired careers after graduation then go to that school instead and stay out of, or at least limit, your debt. Too many students and their parents just want to look good on social media rather than selecting a school that is best for them. Families should also consider trades (electrician, plumber, etc.) as an option for their children as these careers can provide great opportunities for the right individuals.” — Paul T., Canton
“If you are pursuing a degree in medicine or law, then higher education makes sense; however, most degrees are never going to provide students with an opportunity to graduate and successfully pay back the loans they will need to take to pay for their cost of education. Real solutions need to be discussed like lowering the cost of education by the institutions and low to zero interest on loans by the banks. Taxpayers paying for all educational debt is not sustainable and is unfair for those who have repaid their debt or chose to not pursue higher education due to the cost.” — M.M., Milton
“College is worth the investment if the career opportunities on the other side of the degree match the cost and the students are willing to put in the time and effort to make it through a difficult program. I’d also argue that in the current job market, it does matter where your degree comes from. When I source candidates for open roles I gravitate towards resumes from top/mid-tier schools. If someone can make it through a challenging program then I know they have the mindset that I’m looking for in an employee.” — Jo, Hingham
“Colleges and universities seem to be prioritizing money over education. To expect children (yes, children) to walk out of college with $250,000 or more in debt is insane. So is expecting parents to give up their retirements for it. However, community college is very affordable. In fact, I have just started at Holyoke Community College to finish the degree I started 25 years ago. A kid with a part-time job can graduate with an associate’s degree and be guaranteed admission to a 4-year state school debt-free. A regular 4-year institution? Nope.” — John, Wilbraham
“Technical and medical fields will still require college degrees but the student must have a complete plan. ‘I’ll just get a degree and figure it out’ is a recipe for failure. Unless someone else is paying those huge sums than excessive tuitions are not worth it.” — Greg, Norwood
“Unless you are getting a degree with a track record of graduates receiving a salary that provides enough of a return on investment to cover the borrowing costs, it is probably not worth it. Many tech companies will hire now with a certificate in the skill or programming language necessary for succeeding in the role. That is a much cheaper and quicker way of pursuing that career path. A liberal arts degree from one of the many private schools who have tuition approaching (or exceeding) $80K a year may only be worth it to those who do not need to borrow much money to cover.” — Joe, Westwood
No, not worth the cost.
“School costs far outpace the median income of families. With no real ability to pay the full cost, loans must be employed to pay for school. This results in students taking on unconscionable burdens at beginning of their careers. Colleges and universities are going to need to show the value of such education going forward. When a 4-year degree at a private school now costs in excess of $300,000, what is the reasonable break-even period for such an investment? I will hazard a guess that it is much longer than those schools would care to admit to their students.” — Jack, Rochester
“Putting kids into major debt without even a guaranteed job when done is unconscionable. Schools need to find ways to cut costs and assure employability. Maybe start by getting rid of the massive amounts of overhead paid to people who teach NOTHING! Stop paying coaches more in one year than most of these graduates will make in ten years. Wake up schools or continue to lose more enrollees.” — Stephen G., Sudbury
“I am a tech executive and I’m paying people in their 20s six-figure salaries to manage social media communities while working remotely. No college degree is needed. While this is a modern job, in the past everyone just learned on the job, from newspaper reporters to stockbrokers. The widespread degree inflation — that is, the constant application of college degrees to every job whether necessary or not — is absurd and I’m glad the wheels are finally falling off the janky college car.” — James, Jamaica Plain
“The return on investment is not there. Rarely has it ever been, but now more so than in the past. $250K-$325K investment will unlikely generate a mid-high six-figure salary upon graduation.” — John, Worcester
“Unimaginable to think you have to spend over $300K at BU only to obtain a degree in a field that doesn’t pay you enough to justify the amount of money you spent on your college education. Trade schools are the way to go. No debt and you get paid while learning a skill.” — Jerome D., Dorchester
Yes, college is worth it.
“The pandemic has illustrated why college is worth the cost — it is extremely valuable to have flexibility in your career when disruptive events occur. We need to do more as a country to support higher education. It is laughable that the federal pell grant is only worth about $6K at its peak value when a college education has become so expensive.” — Dan, Quincy
“A college degree is the key to lower risk of unemployment and higher overall salary. Furthermore, certain professions require a college degree—try become a pharmacist or an engineer without going to college. The key is to go to a good college that you can afford. And here’s a little-known, dirty little secret the expensive colleges don’t want you to know: It doesn’t really matter where you get your four-year degree, just as long as you get one.” — Gene, Weymouth
“If you apply yourself in college, education expands your mind and can open doors to most anything. My daughter had two majors in college and worked for a while. Reevaluated what she wanted, returned to school, and is in a profession I never thought she would enter. She is so happy and loves what she is doing. Even if one wants more technical hands-on training it doesn’t hurt to take some college courses.” — Ginny, Nantucket
“A college education can help a student achieve a higher standard of living and a more rounded mind. Students should flock to state colleges and community colleges where they get the first two years cheaper. Those who elect to take loans to go to private non-profits should be prepared to pay for any loans.” — Philip W., Boston
Boston.com occasionally interacts with readers by conducting informal polls and surveys. These results should be read as an unscientific gauge of readers’ opinion.