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Do You Really Need a College Degree? Putting a Price Tag on the Next Four Years of Your Life

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Along with a house, a nice car, a happy family, and a successful career, a college degree is now firmly ensconced as part of the American Dream. Most people assume that an undergraduate degree is a mandatory requirement for achieving professional success, and some experts point out that a growing number of managerial positions now require graduate study, as well.

But beyond this conventional wisdom, is a college degree really necessary? Well, the answer to that question is probably different for each unique individual, depending on your career plans, your talent and potential, your academic capabilities, and your financial resources.

If you’ve been wondering if you should bother to go to college, make sure you consider all of the options and implications carefully before making a final decision. Here are some factors to think about as you ponder whether pursuing a college degree is the right path for you.

Is financial security important to you? If you’re the type of person who thrives on luxuries and material comforts, a college degree will definitely help your financial prospects. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, workers with a bachelor’s degree earn an average annual salary of $50,900— that’s a whopping 62% more than the average salary of high school graduates. Researchers at the Washington, D.C.-based Employment Policy Foundation estimate the lifetime value of a college degree to be over $2 million. If money and financial security are important to you, pursuing a college degree is probably a good idea.

Do you have professional career aspirations? If you plan to go into a field like education, engineering, the legal system, or health care, a four-year degree is a must. In fact, licensure requirements in many of the top professional fields, such as law and health care, often require a graduate degree, as well. If you’re interested in saving lives in the emergency room or defending civil rights in a courtroom, a college education will have to factor into your plans.

Would college just delay what you really want to do with your life? If you’re an entrepreneurial type with a great business idea and an independent spirit, college might just be a roadblock on the highway to your future success. But it’s important to realize that college dropout success stories like that of Microsoft’s Bill Gates are the exception, rather than the rule.

What kind of financial resources do you have? The cost of a college education is higher than ever before, and an end to the tuition and fee increases seems to be nowhere in sight. To further compound the problem, access to student loans, scholarships, and grants has grown much tighter and more competitive in recent years. Financial aid can help, but if you or your family are really struggling, you might want to explore other options.

What does success mean to you? For better or for worse, our society has come to equate a college degree with success in life. If you’re willing to define success on your own terms and you’re strong enough to withstand societal disapproval of your unconventional choices, another path might work out. If not, it might be time to start saving up for your first-semester tuition.

Do you plan to attend college? Are you sure that a four-year degree will help you achieve your personal and professional goals? Share your views in the comments.

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