College Is Worth the Cost

The earning potential and variety of opportunities a bachelor’s degree bestows justify the cost of tuition. Pro or con?

Pro: All the Math Points in One Direction

The benefits of earning a bachelor’s degree far outweigh the costs of tuition. The math in the aggregate is simple.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people who graduate with bachelor’s degrees will earn nearly twice as much over the course of their careers as those who complete only high school. College grads earn $2.1 million in lifetime income compared with $1.2 million for high school grads. The cost of four years’ tuition for a public school amounts to approximately $28,000 and for private school is about $100,000. Even if they go with the more expensive educational option, college grads net on average an extra $800,000 in lifetime earnings.

College also prepares you for a well-rounded and healthful life (e.g., college grads smoke less, exercise more, and are twice as likely to engage in volunteer work). The social networks developed in college have lifelong personal and professional benefits. A college education dramatically increases the probability of finding a job that you enjoy.

Where the math gets tricky is in the case of a truly unique individual like Bill Gates of Microsoft (MSFT) or Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. These billionaires achieved tremendous success without the benefit of four-year degrees. It is absolutely critical, however, to appreciate that their uncommonly great insights, drive, and timing are as unusual as the talents that allowed Michael Jordan and LeBron James to make millions of dollars without the benefit of college degrees (though even M.J. did go back to finish his degree later).

In short, we do not live in Lake Wobegon where "all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average." We live in an increasingly complex, knowledge-based society where the vast majority of people will have superior earning power throughout their 30- to 40-year careers based on completing a bachelor’s degree.

Con: Practical Experience Trumps Fancy Degrees

So you got great grades and earned your bachelor’s degree? Congratulations. You may have been better off failing college and then starting a venture and figuring out why you didn’t pass your classroom tests.

Being successful in business is absolutely not contingent on having a bachelor’s degree—or any other type of degree, for that matter. A do-or-die work ethic, passion, unwavering persistence, and vision mean more than anything that can be taught in a classroom. How many college professors who teach business have actually started a business?

I am the sole owner of the top independent rock record label (according to Nielsen-published market share). Historically, the music industry is thought of as residing in New York City, Los Angeles, and Nashville. But I have blazed my own trail, segregating my business in its own petri dish here in Chicago. I started the business as a part-time venture in 1989 with $800 in seed capital. In 2009, Victory Records grossed $20 million. We’ve released more than 500 albums including platinum-selling records for the groups Taking Back Sunday and Hawthorne Heights.

Because I never went to college and didn’t automatically have industry contacts, I had to learn all of the business fundamentals through trial and error when I started my own company. The skills I learned on my own have carried me through 20 years of business. Making mistakes forces one to learn.

If you have a brand that people care about and loyal, hard-working employees coupled with a robust network of smart financial advisers, fellow entrepreneurs, and good legal backup, you will excel. There are plenty of people with degrees and MBAs who could read the books and earn their diplomas but cannot apply what they learned to building a successful enterprise.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Bloomberg BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments

DamianPalmares

Well done Tony and kudos to you for your success. This statement states exactly how I feel in regard to: a college degree is not worth what they say it is. In certain contexts it is and maybe to the average person it is, but to someone who is able to display everything in the paragraph you wrote here...

"Being successful in business is absolutely not contingent on having a bachelor's degree--or any other type of degree, for that matter. A do-or-die work ethic, passion, unwavering persistence, and vision mean more than anything that can be taught in a classroom. How many college professors who teach business have actually started a business?"

It doesn't apply. Well done and good fortune in the future.

Pepxter

I do agree, most of the graduates try mostly to the labour market, another hint of the passion and business that is to be found in the billionaires ranking. Even Bill Gates is a dropout. A degree may help you to get a job inside the corporate ladder, but even there the passion is the main driver of anyone's career, no matter where do develop your job and further enhancement of your skills.

Eng

If you are not one that likes the risk of starting and owning a business, would you be better off going or not going to university? For every business that makes it, many more fail. I work in the construction industry, and it is common to find that professional engineers generally earn more than technicians or builders--unless, of course, you own the company.

Subash Ghosh

Conspicuously nice article. A program usually gives knowledge, prestige, and a human network. But all these values will erode over time unless they are persistently and relentlessly honed. But that's good for academicians. For a true business, application of the above traits is utmost important. There is a big difference bookie knowledge and the reality in the material world. All these additional traits are there to help accomplishing one's goal. If one have no goals then all these efforts are useless.

Frumious

$100,000? Try $200,000. That is today's cost for four years of private undergraduate education at a good university.

Suppose you take that $200,000 and invest it for a lifetime. Will it grow to more than the $800,000 earnings margin described in the "Pro" argument above?

Absolutely. $200,000 invested for 50 years growing at only 6.2% annually (doubling every 10 years) will grow to $6,400,000.

In purely financial terms, college has become a terrible investment. If, nonetheless, you want to send your kids to college, try to have someone else pay for it.

Justin Samuels

I'm a senior at Cornell University, and lately I've gotten no job offers and almost no responses from trying to answer help wanted ads through newspapers, contacting employment agencies, and contacting certain large employers directly. Fortunately, in the past I've worked in theatre and in film, and through my contacts there, I do have pending job opportunities.

So yes, a college degree doesn't necessarily mean much.

George Peck

I have a 2-year degree in radio/TV broadcasting from my little hometown community college. I actually own my own software consultancy and have certainly passed the $2.1 million "lifetime" earnings of the bachelor degree. So much for the benefit of my degree. Tony is my wife's nephew--I think he probably earned it in a year or two.

Then there's my cousin. Took about 10 years to finally finish a PhD in some esoteric area. End result: She's running a bead shop.

No big benefits in college degrees seen around here!

Anonymous

What anyone reading Brummel's rhetorical blabber should be aware of--and those in the industry are well aware of--is that as he sits smugly enjoying his success, even the most successful artists on his roster are either trying to get off his label, licking their battle wounds after somehow managing to, or working day jobs in fast food restaurants because they didn't go to college and their band had to break up in order to get off Victory (imagine how bad it must be to prefer that to having a label deal).

I'd suggest that Brummel go back and take a business ethics class, but he's too arrogant for any of it to penetrate and too busy crushing dreams and spending the $20 million he made last year on legal fees to further imprison the bands that were too uneducated to know any better than to sign one of his notorious contracts.

Prini Vollunger

College is worth the cost, but one has to major in the right area. Otherwise college is useless as many grads are finding out.

Tom Simonds

The pro statement is just bad numbers. People who are generally smarter, driven, and ambitious tend to go to college. They are already self-selected achievers. They would have done well if they didn't go to college.

Unless you want a career in law, medicine, engineering, management consulting, investment banking, etc., you don't need a college degree. Note that many of these career options are more lucrative than regular jobs.

That said, college was fun, I learned a lot, and made some really great friends.

That said, since college I've had a lot more fun, learned even more, and made some really great friends.

Diane

Without a doubt, I get value every day out of what I learned in college. That said, the fast-rising costs of an undergraduate degree are becoming increasingly a questionable burden for most families as economic units--when the benefits extend to businesses and society as a whole. I like the German apprenticeship model--a middle ground between no degree and earning a degree. It's important to acknowledge the outliers like Tony, Virgin Founder Richard Branson, Bill Gates, and Mark Z. It's also important that we have a society of increasingly literate people who can think and solve complex problems. College nurtures those abilities.

Norman Wells

I cracked it without a university education. Left school at 15, joined the Royal Navy as a boy, spent 16 years trolling the oceans, mainly in aubmarines, learnt everything from the school of life. Left Navy and went to work in the city of London in technology, ended up as a totally independent consultant in IT to the huge banks, Credit Suisse First Boston, Deutche Bank, and many more. Eventually decided to come to Exuma and have built from scratch a successful development. Forget the BA, and learn from life and it will teach you what you need, eg logic, common sense, ethical business sense, and how to handle people from all walks of life. All of my sons have done something similar and are very successful people. Hopefully helpful. Formal education is for the mindless masses; learning by mistakes, and from life is what our economies need.

john

Read the book "No Sucker Left Behind" by Marc Sheer. No Sucker Left Behind is the only book that blows the lid off colleges' scandalous price-gouging schemes. More important, it includes innovative tools to fight back and get a valuable degree for less.

Mike

College is worthwhile only if you enter with the understanding that if you major in the humanities, you better have a back-up plan for paying back your tuition.

Justin Samuels

I know people who have college degrees who are living at home with their parents, and who are in their 30s or older. College degrees in and of themselves do not guarantee employment,and even if you get a job, it doesn't guarantee success in a career. There are other factors as well, some of which have to do with the person himself. I've known self proclaimed geniuses, with great educations and no social skills and common sense, despite their Phds. They're on welfare.

Vernon Thiede

It's all supply and demand, people. Get a PHD in an oversupplied field and earn very little. Get a BS in Engineering or Nursing (both undersupplied fields) and do very well. College itself is not a ticket to high earnings. Only a marketable degree is. The Fed needs to quit subsidizing worthless degrees. Just remember that if you're too well rounded then you are not very sharp.

bill

I knew 2 millionaires in my life.

One inherited it and lived a good life from the beginning, but was an A...!

The other never went to college but went into business for himself at a young age, going bankrupt twice before he was finally successful. A lot of hard work and 20 years later, he is a multi-millionaire, and one of the nicest guys I know. Never talks about his business or how much he is worth, but owns a nice home in Paradise Valley in Arizona with a pool and tennis court.

I had one year of college, and when I retired, I was making more than my young college office mates who had 4 years or more and debt.

College is not necessary, but hard work is.

Mat Z

It's good to acknowledge exceptions to the rules; they go both ways as pointed out in the article and in the comments. What the "people" want to know is what other people get from life and work as an average. Does the average college graduate do better or worse financially by yearly income over the course of their working life? My bet is on "yes," and not strictly because of their degree but also including their expectations and networking that result from their degree efforts. Also, I would bet that total earning potential for the average is much higher with a degree. Engineers start in the $50k - $90k range as to accountants, IT, etc. How many years does it take for a factory, warehouse, construction, etc worker to make such wages? Even many unions' rank and file have to wait multiple years to get to this point.

Focus on the average person, and then figure out where you can exceed those expectations.

Brian W

I do not believe that going to a college or a great college is a pre-requisite for (financial) success. Like many of the comments said, there's a handful of millionaires who have never finished their college degrees. In fact, in Tom Stanley's book "The Millionaire Next Door," it is noted that most American millionaires are not college educated and the majority are in fact small business owners (which does not require a college degree).

But I do agree that college, while extremely costly, is worth it for the majority of people.

A deeper analysis may point to the fact that many of these non-college educated millionaires had many qualities found in successful people in general. They're characterized as being "hard working," "passionate about what they are doing," "having incredible tenacity," "ambition," "striving for specific goals," " having willingness to take risks and learn from them," etc. These are things that a book can suggest but cannot truly teach; only experience can.

However, what can easily be forgotten is that not everyone develops or acquires these qualities and college is often a tool to develop that in young individuals. Think back to when you were 18. At the time, were you ready to define your goals? Did you have a specific plan? And did you have the right traits and qualities to achieve the level of success you dream of. For some of your peers, they were ready to create the next Facebook and for others, they were not. For the former, more power to you! And for the latter, that's fine-you have time and opportunity to build it.

College is a great opportunity to help you define and refine yourself. This is key for college students: It is easy to get lost in just defining academic goals (major, grad school, etc.). While academics are incredibly important, it is just as important to develop yourself personally and professionally with the opportunities college provides. By partaking in different organizations and activities, you encounter many people (broaden your network), many ideas (improve your intellectual maturity) and are presented with many opportunities (the result of exposure). However it is a product of what you seek to get from college and as with many things in life, it is often not handed to you. There are successful people who have come out of college too.

In the end, it is understanding the big picture of the paths in front of you. "How will college help me get to where I want to be?," "How will not attending college get me to where I want to be?" and those are questions only an individual can answer on his/her own.

mujtaba w

I bet most of you will go with the second option, but according to my point of view, if there is education plus experience or vice versa, it will produce a perfect product--simlarly if someone has a college degree plus a creative and hard-working mind, he will get much more success than the person who is only a degree holder or believes in experience.

Flagg' Em Down Entertainment Inc.

When I think of the the people in my life that I admire for being great business people, my list is as follow. Russell Simmons, Jay Z, Sean Combs (P Diddy.), Warren Buffet. These are great businessmen in my opinion. But three of the four businessmen don't have a college degree. Mr. Warren Buffet is the only one in this group of businessmen that has a degree. But all of these men share a life of prosperity. Russell Simmons, Jay Z, and P Diddy all have something in common--they all graduated from GSOA (Ghetto Streets Of America). With their master's in how to make a dollar out of 15 cents. I currently own my own company, called Flagg' Em Down Entertainment Inc. It's a music management company representing singer/songwriters and music producers. I incorporated in 2003 through my entertainment lawyer. It has been a very hard road with me making a lot of mistakes and failures that have cost me money but more than money my time. My company has managed to get music placements on some major record companies and I have had the privilege to meet and network with some of the top people in the music industry. But I had to learn all this on my own. I had to dig and find information on the things that I was interested in and find out who the people were who I needed to be around so that I can learn from them. I have been jerked around in this music industry a couple of times--that's because I was green to the game. An old guy from my hood told me along time ago that "The Game Is To Be Sold And Not Told."

RobD

First noteworthy point is what type of degree? If you're in the humanities you're not likely looking at a big salary as the primary driver, which is OK, because there's more to life than just money. If you're getting a degree for financial reward, it's still a smart move. I'm a successful business owner. Can you make it without a degree. Sure, but why? You can pick up all the business basics in college in a highly efficient way. That doesn't in any way stop you from experiencing the "Real World" at the same time. Unless you like doing things the hard way.

Ted

The cost of 4-year college depends on the major. What is the current salary for an entry position? If you cannot pay it off under 2 years, it's not worth it. Forget about inflation or salary increases. One has to be conservative with finances.

Newbie

With the exception of medicine, law, CPA, and other professional streams of education, the argument that a Bachelor's and a Master's degree don't mean much does hold water. That is not because fundamentally college education is bad, but because in most streams the curriculum is irrelevant and completely out of synch with what the industry needs. The primary reason is that the faculty in most universities and colleges are pure academics with little professional/practical experience. So in today's scenario you could have a faculty at a top b-school who happens to have tenured position without ever having set foot in a business. And this guy will teach you strategy, leadership, finance, etc. We can well imagine what the students would learn. Everything works in theory; however in practice 90% of theory does not work. A good example is Ben Bernanke himself. He is supposed to be a 'brilliant' economist (a career academic) from Princeton. He has published top-notch articles in several journals. In theory he is supposed to be outstanding. However when managing the US economy during the recession, he is all at loss. None of his brilliant theories are working in real life. He should have been fired by now, if Obama was not shielding him.

Irene B

My dissertation is kind of about this. I'm researching the impact of placement. Placement is like an internship and what I have found so far is of course employers are worried that students do not have any employability skills when they graduate, which is why some of these placement programmes are introduced to allow students to study and work. So that when they graduate they have the knowledge and the skills.

But the question is what do they learn on the job--unless you are a computer science student or engineering student the placement can be useless. They do more practical things than business student. As a placement student I can tell you I don't think I learnt much. I was very jealous of my friend who was working as an asset manager in AXA as he was learning so much. And yes my IT skills have improved, which you need for most of your work in final year. I was not involved in much decision making, which meant I can't put anything I have learnt into practise. Which means you need some sort of degree to form a foundation. Even with work experience I am finding it difficult to find a job.

And to end this, if you have no degree, looking for a job first of all will be very difficult unless you are starting your own company. Bill Gate and Richard Branson are drop-outs, but they started their own company so they were their own bosses.

ChrisS

"If you have a brand that people care about and loyal, hard-working employees coupled with a robust network of smart financial advisers, fellow entrepreneurs, and good legal backup, you will excel."

Good article, but I do find it interesting that the requirements for your successful business--a team of financial advisors, entrepreneurs, and lawyers--all require college degrees (or post-graduate degrees such as law). The major risk-taking entrepreneur such as yourself or Bill Gates may not require a college degree, but your business, much like Microsoft, would not have flourished had it not been for an army of college-educated employees putting their talents to good use.

A degree is a parachute

Only a handful of people possess the vision, persistence, and guts of entrepreneurs. The rest need the parachute of a degree in order to make a living, however boring. Those that possess both frequently end up as CEOs (politicians excluded).

bob

First of all, averages are very misleading--just take the average income of residents of Warren Buffet's hometown and you will see what I mean. Second, there is the issue of what type of degree. If you did a bachelors of underwater basket weaving then expect that you will be paid commensurate with the demand for your skill set. Third, the numbers of college tuition are way off. College is much more expensive than that. Fourth, never underestimate connections. By this I mean relationships fostered in college and relationships that were in place before college. The great myth of the super successful individual is that many rise to that level from relative poverty blah blah blah. In reality most successful people are close friends with other successful people and those relationships predate the success. For my part, I have rarely obtained employment by filling out a job application. I know before I apply for it whether I have a great chance or not because of the networks that I have, not because my resume. That being said, you need the basic skill sets to be considered. Dig a little deeper into any persons success story and you will invariably find links to already successful people. The old adage, it's not what you know, it's who you know, is as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago.

He'res my take

Perhaps a Bachelor's Degrees was once "worth it." However, since high schools continue to promote 4-year degrees to all students as the best path for their careers at the exclusion of all other options! This dramatically increases the number of students who probably shouldn't be in college to begin with and the number of degrees being awarded each year. There are students who would be better off attending more affordable community college and then transferring to a a 4-year, but only if they feel it is in their best interest. The continued pressure on 18-19 year olds to obtain a 4-year degree and not consider technical/trade school or community college options only places these students at a disadvantage in the long run by saddling them with years of tuition debt when they could be earning income and building a future in a field more aligned with their personal skills.

trh

I do not care what argument Do what you enjoy. Just loving your job and passionatly doing it will make you a success.

Joel West

I started a business before I had a business education. (I had a B.S. in science). I don't know that I needed 2 years of business classes, but I certainly needed to know accounting, HR, strategy, marketing, and either advertising or consumer marketing.

I'm now a college professor, and teach business because I found the problems more difficult than the technical ones.

A degree is not a silver bullet--people who pick the wrong major or don't hustle to interview in this market will be underemployed.

However, in times of normal (6%-7%) unemployment, a business degree is valuable if the opportunity cost is low (i.e., you don't have plans to start the next Facebook, Microsoft, or Starbucks).

I think most business owners could learn what they need from a good A.A. (the quality of JCs varies dramatically). However, if you want to work for a big corporation, you'll never get very far without a bachelor's degree. My first boss had to go back to school at age 33 while supporting 3 kids and working a full-time job.

Correlation is not causation

Historically, education in the U.S. has been correlated with higher incomes afterwards. Of course, it is also correlated with higher SES, parental income and social networks before. Correlation is not causation.

As the cost of a university education in the U.S. rises and the years of study for an advantage over other work force candidates rise (often now including graduate degrees), the past historical association may weaken considerably.

People in the U.S. invest an extraordinary amount of capital in a university education. In addition to having the highest cost system in the world in terms of tuition, students are also investing their human capital - time which they could have spent working and earning money, starting a business or learning a trade. It is time during which they could have built themselves a house -via programs like Habitat for Humanity. These costs and the return on financial capital are seldom considering in assessing the full cost of a university education.

More importantly, human capital as an investment - in the U.S. and other first world countries faces several secular challenges that are likely to significantly reduce its longer term return in comparison with historical data.

1) automation and ubiquitous computing. These will make many tasks which previously required a major amount of training to be readily doable by persons with considerably less training who have ready access to these tools and information.

2) Offshoring - there are smart, well training, hard working people everywhere in the world. Many have the benefit of living in places where the cost of living is substantially less than in the
U.S. (not necessarily the Standard of living for the well educated). They also benefit from their nations subsidizing their education. In many countries higher education is free, and in most others it is still substantially cheaper than in the US. (The US students also pay more for their software and textbooks). In short, a lower COST of living and a lower cost of education subsidize the cost of human capital in much of the world. This means that US human capital
will continue to be at a competitive disadvantage - earning lower returns to investment (eg. a decreasing U.S. standard of living).

Remember, nothing is easier to offshore than information. A mechanic or plumber, or dentist or nurse or cook is much less likely to get their job offshored than a computer programmer, engineer or business analyst.

3) Trade under current conditions. Ongoing trade deficits and high
level of imports also exports many jobs in manufacturing, engineering,
business, and information technology. There is a multiplier effect here, because cost-of-goods-sold is often a larger percentage of sales than profit - suggesting that many benefits will stay where the goods are produced, and fund the economies there.

Terry Boult

Interesting...individual stories mean nothing so the second response is meaningless. The median (not average) 2000 Census income for musician/singers was $16,161 and only $$31,000 for those that were employed full time. I agree with the comments about passion and drive being important, but so is the field. The comments about the value being "major" specific is more of an impact that most people imagine. Census data does not go down to the actual college major taken but if you group the occupation data, and adjust for the percentage of people in each occupation with college degrees, you get the following for the average occupational median salary by "General field" (with number of grads working in that field).

Area Salary #CollGrads
HealthCare $53,737 3,691,791
Eng/CS/Math $52,566 3,655,881
Business/Man. $46,291 9,321,108;
Legal $44,441 2,577,710,
Life/Physical Sci $41,154 999,790
All Other $28,400 17,667,574

Note the total of Professional/STEM/Business is 20M and other is about 17M. More significantly note that the median HS graduate income is only $27,351, so for the millions whose college education is not preparing them for a Professional/STEM/Business occupation the cost/benefit is quite different.

(It is difficult to do this the one would would want the census data since they do not separate out data with and without college degrees in occupational salaries, so the data is probably somewhat skewed.)

Branislav Bujnak

In my opinion, having an education is an important part of the puzzle but not always a necessary one. There are examples like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg who were drop-outs and are very successful. But one may argue that they were also born at the right time. Bill (Era of PC), Mark (Era of Social Networking), and they had talent that was put to use. I personally think that professors are here to teach us and to give us the necessary tools for us to become successful. Education is still the best investment ever one can make.
B

David

College is not required for sucess. However not every one wants to run a business, some people want to be doctors or do research into human genomes. These endevours require college education, and than some. I know I dont want a doctor doing surgery that dropped out of med school. College is not just about economics, just like life isnt only about money. Its important but so is doing something you love and being happy.

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