For as long as most of us can remember, the idea of attending college and earning a bachelor’s degree after high school has been a logical next step on the way to achieving a fulfilling professional career and personal success. But in recent years, the changing higher education landscape has left some students and families questioning the value of a degree relative to the cost of attending college.
Moreover, with increasing numbers of adult learners returning to the classroom to complete degrees, acquire credentials to advance or change careers — or attend as first-time college students — the college value equation has become even more complicated to figure out.
Is the cost of college worth it?
It’s a fair question, given the significant expense of attending college and the rapidly evolving trends in how businesses and industries build out their workforce. But when you take a closer look at the issue, it becomes clear that it’s not just about the numbers — a college experience delivers much more than a degree and the probability of higher income over the course of a career.
Let’s Look at the Numbers
Let’s face it, the numbers do matter, and future income considerations play a role in the college decision for many students and families. Statistics continue to show the financial benefits that earning a college degree can deliver over time. According to research by the U.S. Social Security Administration, the difference in lifetime earnings between those who have a bachelor’s degree and those with just a high school diploma can be as much as $900,000.
But when it comes to deciding whether the cost of college is worth the potential return on investment, that’s just where the conversation begins, says Buddy Starling, Associate Vice Chancellor of Enrollment Management at Troy University.
“We like to oversimplify the response when we’re asked, ‘What really is the value of a college degree anymore?’” Starling says. “We like to say, ‘Well, your lifetime earnings with a college degree are going to be X dollars amount more than if you didn’t have a college degree,’ which is true. But the real value is how it shapes someone professionally.”
Starling explains that 60% of jobs in the U.S. economy today require a degree beyond high school, which can be justification enough that the cost of college is worth it in terms of employment prospects. But it’s the impact that a college experience can have on the other aspects of one’s life and work that is equally important, he says.
“Regardless of what your high school, community college or military or work experience has been — the fact that you’re going to pursue a college degree suggests that you’re attempting to improve your position in life,” Starling says, “and the quality of your life. Because whatever age you are, earning a college degree really does shape your perspective on our world.”
Is the Cost of Post-Secondary Education Worth It for Adult Learners?
There is not just one approach to college these days. While the traditional path has always been attending college directly out of high school, more and more adults are looking to college as a way to change professional fields or advance their existing careers. The question of whether the cost of college is worth it is just as important to these students.
“People have always said, ‘College isn’t for everyone.’ But what we really should say is that college right after high school isn’t for everyone,” Starling says. “There’s a lot of value in graduating from high school and getting involved with some kind of service, whether it be community or military. Some students find value in going out to work for a while or in taking a gap year, which is something that’s caught on.” For these students, it’s not so much a question of is college worth it, but when does it make the most sense to attend? “It’s really about the overall experience and how it shapes your perspective on the world we live in,” says Starling.
While post-secondary education has always delivered exceptional value to adult learners looking to advance or switch careers, this is even more true with the emergence and growth of online learning that provides access to higher education anytime, anywhere. Online learning options give these students the flexibility and quality of education they need.
“The greatest demand for online courses come from students who work full-time or part-time, maybe is raising a family or is deployed in the military,” Starling says. “Those students understand the value of education, they want the benefits that are going to come with a college degree, and they’re just taking a nontraditional path towards that. Their top concern is convenience. They want to know how they can work, raise their family, serve their country and still get a college degree. At TROY, we’ve made that very easy; we have a substantial, long-standing platform for online learning. We played a big role in pioneering that in Alabama and in our region.”
What’s the Value of Education Beyond More Earning Power?
There are countless ways that a college educational experience shapes individuals, their perspectives and the impact they ultimately can have on the world. “Nobody comes away from the college experience unchanged for the better,” Starling says. “And the fact that you’re going to earn more money over your lifetime, you’re going to be more likely to have benefits, like retirement, if you have a degree — those are huge, quantifiable reasons to pursue a degree. But really it’s about how the experience shapes you.”
It can be difficult to put a value on experience and perspective when it comes to evaluating the benefits versus the cost of college. Nevertheless, they are major factors of the college experience that contribute to success on both a professional and personal level after graduation. One of the key benefits, Starling says, is the way college prepares individuals to grow their social networks and gain a solid understanding of how the professional world looks and functions. He says that students typically surround themselves with friends and social circles that very much resemble themselves during middle and high school. But during the college experience, students are exposed to much greater diversity and gain a lot from that broader view of the world.
“The students who get the greatest value out of their experience during their time in college and well after are the ones who, either intentionally or from association, are exposed to diversities of people and personalities and values,” Starling says. “That’s where a real strength of a college degree comes in.”
This aspect of the value of a college education can be especially true, Starling says, for students from smaller, rural areas who usually have had less exposure to culturally diverse populations. And, as a top regional university in the state of Alabama, these are precisely the students that TROY typically serves.
“As a regional institution, our mission is different from a flagship institution,” Starling says. “We’re located in southeast Alabama, a very rural area, in a town of about 20,000. But I’ll bet you the number of students we’ve given opportunities to travel abroad is staggering. I’m talking about students who took their first trip to a different region of the country or to another country just by virtue of a TROY experience.”
Those types of opportunities embedded in a college education can be true game-changers when it comes to non-quantifiable benefits that make the cost of pursuing higher education worth it.
“Those experiences open your mind and heart to a different approach to life,” Starling says. “There have been so many great stories about our students taking study abroad trips or even just going with a group of kids to a ballgame three or four states away, that represent so many opportunities for varied experiences. I know college should be all about growth; we assist students who are serious about growing academically, socially and spiritually.”
The Non-Academic Takeaways From a College Experience
Too often, the perceived benefits of a college education are measured solely in terms of the academic knowledge and training gained as a result. These two value points are critical — and well represented at TROY — but they fail to acknowledge an array of other important takeaways that can help a graduate become a better professional or build a better life after college.
Starling says one of the most impactful experiences students engage in happens through community service projects and initiatives.
“The community-mindedness of our campus is amazing,” Starling says. “It’s astounding the dollars contributed by our campus community through philanthropy to charitable organizations every year. To see a group of 18,19, 20-year-olds raise $60,000 over a few weeks or months — can you imagine the experience of doing that and the affirmation that brings and what they learn from it? Whether it’s managing a food program, contributing to the Wounded Warrior Project or other causes, there’s so much of that happening here.”
The skills gained from those experiences during college usually last a lifetime. “For a lot of students, that’s the first time they understand individual accountability and responsibility,” Starling says. “Because they don’t have a parent there to pick up the slack, or an older brother or sister to rely on, it’s all on them to meet their obligations as individuals. They don’t want to let their group down — that’s part of the maturation process.”
Additionally, Starling says, college is where students begin building a professional network — of fellow students, faculty, alumni, and industry connections — that they will keep and grow throughout their careers.
“Whether a student is conscious of it or not, they are establishing a valuable network, and it’s a network they would never have otherwise,” Starling says. “In their first year, our traditional students begin to understand the value of that network. From all the things they’re going to experience, both in the classroom and out, they’re going to interact not just with peers, but with professionals, faculty, alumni, industry leaders and professional recruiters. Those can be the kind of valuable connections that stay with you well after college.”
A College Education That Offers Hands-on Experience
Clearly, a college experience that includes extracurricular activities and community service engagement contributes to developing the leadership, communication and teamwork skills that students will need throughout their careers — and building the professional network that can help them succeed.
In addition, the level of hands-on training that students receive during college is another key aspect of the value of education. Much of this happens in the form of internships, which is something that virtually all students at TROY engage in, regardless of their major.
“When I was in college, the only internships that anybody ever talked about were those that were required for their majors — education, journalism, they all had to do a required internship in their last semester,” Starling says. “But all students come today with the expectation of fulfilling a relevant internship within their major.”
Through internships, students gain meaningful hands-on experience in a real-world professional setting related to their studies. They’re exposed to how a professional workplace functions and how an organization’s teams communicate and work together. They also gain an understanding of the impact their work has on meeting the needs of the customers an organization serves.
Employers often use internships to feed their internal hiring needs, and that can lead to a full-time job for the student intern after graduation.
“As we look at value, these internship opportunities not only serve the students, they also serve the business. These employers can tap into a talent pool and observe students in a hands-on environment to determine their potential fit for the organization,” Starling says. “I think the internship opportunities are where I’ve seen some of the strongest coordination between what students expect us to deliver and how well and extensively we deliver it. There’s rarely a major anymore that doesn’t have internship opportunities embedded in it.”
For 2020 TROY grad, Jasmine Canlas, her internship provided valuable insight into a career in surplus lines insurance. Canlas, who earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with a concentration in Risk Management and Insurance, interned the summer after her junior year with the Wholesale & Specialty Insurance Association. The internship allowed her to work in Atlanta, Georgia, at Maxum Specialty Insurance Group and then with AmWins Brokerage in Irvine, California.
The internship provided Canlas with networking relationships that led to her current job with Markel Corporation as an Underwriter Trainee. “My mentor through my internship offered me a job immediately after my experience ended — around nine months before I graduated.”
Today, Canlas uses the skills she learned through her internship — on the job. “During my internship, I had to learn how to manage my time and prioritize my workday, which is exactly what I have to do now. I also had to sharpen my social skills which is a vital part of my career as it is founded on the relationships we are able to form in the industry. I don’t think I could have been better prepared,” she says.
How Can Students Offset the Cost of College?
There’s no question that college is a significant expense. When measuring the value of a college education, students of any age and families need to understand it as an investment in a lifetime of higher earning potential and a broader range of professional opportunities — but they also need to feel comfortable with how to pay for college right now.
Between merit- and need-based scholarships and grants, private and federal student loans, work-study, and additional resources, there are a number of options to relieve some of the financial barriers to higher education. TROY is committed to helping students and families identify and benefit from every resource available.
“We work very closely with families to exhaust the financial aid possibilities that exist for them,” Starling says. “That’s what the FAFSA process (federal student aid) is all about, to help families find out exactly where you are and what your options are. And then we help them look at that in conjunction with the scholarship programs that we offer.”
“We always tell families to get started on the financial aid process as early as possible,” Starling adds. “They need to complete the FAFSA promptly and apply for all the scholarships they can. Obviously, we want to leverage everything that’s available to the student based on merit and then based on need, as well. That’s where we begin.”
And After Graduation?
TROY places equal emphasis on helping students explore all of their future career options, beginning very early in their TROY experience, Starling says.
“We have a software program here called Handshake that allows students to interact with professionals in their field,” he says. “Our Career Services department does an excellent job of promoting professional awareness to students, even beginning in their sophomore year. We do several career fairs here on campus. But again, it’s about the connectivity a student begins to have with a professor and the professor’s insights on careers and their own experiences and what alumni have accomplished with their degrees. Any exposure we can give students in terms of connecting with alumni we think is really important.”
“I always tell parents that we have a mutual goal here,” Starling says. “In four or five years, we want your student off the parents’ payroll. We want them gainfully employed.”
Learn More About Meeting the Cost of College and Identifying Available Resources
If you would like to learn more about the value of education at TROY, visit the Office of Financial Aid page on our website, where you will find tools to help you calculate the cost of attendance, forms and worksheets that you will need and information about budgeting, types of aid available and how to apply. You can also speak with a financial aid counselor to learn more about scholarships and aid by calling 1.800.414.5756.