The value of post-secondary degrees has become a pretty heated debate these days. College costs more than ever—way beyond inflation—and the job market has become more and more competitive with every passing year. All of that begs the question: is higher education overrated, now? Post-secondary education’s value per dollar has dropped, but there’s no question that college is worth it even when you look at the fundamental statistics.
College graduates earn more money
There’s no doubt that college costs more than in the past (even one decade earlier). Some of the world’s most famous entrepreneurs dropped out of college. An entire subculture has emerged that centers on dropping out of college to start a business, so it’s little wonder that people question its value. Here’s the thing, though: college graduates earn twice as much in lifetime earnings compared to high school graduates, on average. Graduate degree holders earn even more money than bachelor degree holders on average, making it well worth the time investment for most people. How much more do they earn? Bachelor’s degree holders earn just shy of $1,000,000 more than a high school graduate over a given lifetime. That’s a lot of money, even if it’s divided across several decades. Paying $50,000 (or even $100,000) for a college education really pays off in the long run with numbers like that. There’s an entirely separate and important debate concerning the rising costs of college, but that’s not the focus here.
Is higher education overrated when it enables you to earn an extra $1,000,000 in lifetime earnings? No.
Is higher education overrated for mental health benefits?
Gallup polls indicate a strong correlation exists between mental health status and academic attainment. According to the survey, approximately 54% of college graduates reported their mental health as “excellent,” whereas only 37% of high school graduates reported the same result. Here’s the full breakdown of “excellent mental health” respondents by educational attainment:
- Highschool or less: 37%
- Some college: 45%
- College graduate: 54%
- Postgraduate: 60%
Keep in mind that this data comes from a self-reported survey; individuals aren’t always qualified to assess their own mental health. It’s also from 2007, before the 2020 pandemic and even the 2008 recession. This data represents a snapshot of mental health in a time of economic prosperity, not hardship. On a related note, a study from Pew Social Trends shows that Americans experience much higher job satisfaction when family income reaches $75,000 per year. Job satisfaction is a big component of mental health, as it’s what most of us spend 8 hours doing every day. Specifically, the job satisfaction results look like this:
- $75,000+: 59% of employees are very satisfied with their jobs.
- $30,000-$74,999: 45% of employees are very satisfied with their jobs.
- Under $30,000: 39% of employees are very satisfied with their jobs.
Higher income isn’t the direct equivalent of a college degree, but post-secondary education is one of the most common paths to reach higher earning potential. Is higher education overrated when it’s tied to improved mental health and higher income levels? It’s hard to argue with that data, even if the connection to education is indirect.
College graduates lead healthier lives on average
According to a 2011 report from the CDC, earning a bachelor’s degree correlates with a higher life expectancy of 9.3additional years for men and 8.6 additional years for women compared to those without a highschool diploma. Here is the full breakdown of life expectancy for 25-year-olds according to their educational attainment. Men:
- No highschool diploma: 47
- Highschool graduate: 51
- Some college education:52
- College graduate: 56
- No highschool diploma: 52
- Highschool graduate: 57
- Some college education:58
- College graduate: 60
The CDC report also found a correlation between higher education and these health benefits:
- Lower chance of obesity.
- Lower chance of engaging in smoking.
Even better for college graduates, the CDC outlined several other health-related correlations with higher income levels as well. While income level isn’t a shoe-in for education (as mentioned above), it’s important to remember that education is the most common factor in reaching higher income levels, putting these factors in close proximity to each other.
Is higher education overrated? Read these other statistics first.
In addition to making more money and the statistical likelihood of a relatively high life expectancy, college graduates also tend to experience these benefits.
College graduates are less likely to divorce
According to the Pew Research Center, college-educated women are less likely to divorce than highschool graduates or women with a partial college education. Derived from the National Survey of Family Growth data, the survey measured the per cent of marriages that lasted at least 20 years:
- College graduates: 78%
- Some college education: 49%
- Highschool graduate or less: 40%
College graduates are far less likely to go to prison
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there is a strong inverse correlation between earning a college degree and avoiding prison. In its study conducted between 1991 and 1997, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that post-secondary graduates represented the smallest portion of prison inmates. The numbers break down like this:
- Some high school or less: 41.3% of inmates.
- General education diploma holders: 23.4% of inmates.
- Highschool graduates: 22.6% of inmates.
- Post-secondary graduates: 12.7% of inmates.
College graduates experience lower unemployment rates
Earning a bachelor’s degree isn’t just about building your career, and careers aren’t just about your pre-tax salary. The world of work changes as surely as everything else in our world, which means that you need to adapt in order to survive (never mind staying competitive). There’s a substantial list of factors that can disrupt job security stretching from the 1990s into the next few decades:
- The rise of knowledge workers made post-secondary degrees the “norm” for many job applications from the 1990s onward.
- Unskilled manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and now technical knowledge workers on the other side of the world compete with domestic knowledge workers.
- Workplace automation is expected to throw the concept of job security for a loop.
- Recessions have come and gone throughout that and will continue to do so, too.
That’s a lot of potential disruption to everyone’s jobs. How do you insulate yourself from that much job disruption? That’s where bachelor’s degrees come into play. Education isn’t a guarantee that you’ll avoid unemployment, but those holding bachelor’s degrees tend to maintain half of the unemployment rate that highschool graduates do. Take a look at this data measuring the unemployment rate by educational level from 1999 to 2019.
Whereas unemployment rates for highschool graduates tend to sit around 5% or 6%, only around 2.5% of college graduates experience unemployment most of the time. It’s worth noting that unemployment rates were declining in July 2019, but that data set was from before the 2020 global pandemic—and it kicked off a recession that economists and investors alike all expected to come within the next few years, anyway. Here’s the thing, though: recessions, natural disasters, and pandemics aren’t exceptions to the rule. They are cyclical, which makes it all the more important to improve your chances of finding or holding onto a job when they happen.
Earning a college degree goes a long way toward that. So, is higher education overrated? It certainly costs more than it used to, but the benefits are as strong as ever. A bachelor’s degree will earn you an additional $1,000,000 in lifetime income on average, cuts your unemployment rate in half, and it correlates to many other benefits regarding health and happiness.
Don’t write it off just yet.