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What do Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg all have in common?

They are all millionaires that never graduated college.

Sometimes the allure of making it without attending college can be strong. In the past, a college education was something that only the rich could afford, and not everyone needed. You could make it in the world with only a high school education and a hard-work ethic.

Now, entrepreneurship is on the rise, and many young high school graduates might be more excited to get their big ideas into production than to seek out college.

But for every college dropout that made it, there are millions of students that never did. As alluring as it can be to do what you want, our world is not kind to those that pass up opportunities such as higher education.

For some, money and experience can get them through life without needing college, but for most, college has become a modern-day necessity.

However, college is also becoming increasingly expensive. Student debt is out of control, and the cost of pursuing a degree is not feasible for many people. How can you weigh the pros and cons of college when it’s impossible to afford in the first place?

Let’s dive into the facts behind college, how the price has skyrocketed but so has society’s expectations. Is college really worth the money?

Pro: Why You Need College

In our modern day, it’s common to hear people equate a college education with a high school education in the ‘60s. In other words, our world has made getting a college education a necessity to achieving a middle-class income. To succeed in life, you need a college degree.

But how accurate is this claim? If people like Zuckerberg and Gates can make it in life without a degree, how come others can’t?

Unfortunately, millions of Americans have already tried that, and for every successful dropout that the media obsesses over, there are millions of dropouts that are struggling to make ends meet.

As one writer with The Atlantic, Robert J Zimmer, explained: “These [dropouts] are the 34 million Americans over 25 with some college credits but no diploma. Nearly as large as the state of California, this group is 71 percent more likely to be unemployed and four times more likely to default on student loans. Far from being millionaires, they earn 32 percent less than college graduates, on average.”

The stats simply are stacked against those that drop out of college, and it is even more stark when you break down the numbers by racial identity.

Information gathered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2015, and reported on by CNN Money, show that college students (on average across racial identities) make about twice as much as their counterparts that only complete a high school education.

So it is no doubt that college is a necessity if you want to succeed in life.

However, two-year associate’s degrees are also more beneficial than no schooling at all: many holders of an associate’s degree make two-thirds more than those with only a high school education, although not as much as those with a four-year degree.

This, according to the Hamilton Project, shows that college graduates make more than high school graduates at every point in their career.

Opting (or dropping) out of college is simply a death sentence for any career opportunities.

Con: The Cost of College Education

However, there’s another side to this coin: the cost of higher education. Especially when looking at historical data, the astronomical rise in cost has many parents wondering how they could ever afford college for their kids in the first place.

Since the Greatest Generation (those born between 1901-1945) the cost of a college education has risen by about 272 percent.

Millennials are now paying more for college and getting deeper in financial debt due to student loans. 42 million Americans have student loan debt, adding in total to over $1.3 trillion.

As one study found, the cost of living for millennials is also increasing compared to other generations, and more graduate students are attempting to find alternative ways to pay off their inescapable debt, such as including crowdfunding and through employee benefits at their jobs.

As college costs have risen, so has the inequality in pay. Minimum wage hasn’t changed since 2007, when it was raised to $7.25 on the federal level.

In the past, college students could simply work through the summer to pay for the upcoming year, but that is no longer a feasible option for any student. Saving up from a summer job will hardly pay for the room and board of living on campus, let alone the cost of tuition.

Student loans are also, unfortunately, not as helpful as they were originally intended. Sallie Mae (Student Loan Marketing Association, created by Richard Nixon in 1973) is a famous example of how government-provided student loans have failed those they were trying to help.

In the 1990s, Sallie Mae was “let loose” on the free market, meaning they became hungry for profits instead of helpful for students. These students were encouraged to take out more loans than they could afford, many of which had high interest rates and low monthly payments.

For some students, the amount of money they pay each month isn’t even enough to cover the interest being accrued, meaning the loan is growing instead of shrinking with each monthly payment.

Thus students are now finding it impossible to bear the weight of their student debt, and over 8 million are in default. They can’t declare bankruptcy for their student loans, some of them are suffering from government-garnished wages,  and they can’t manage to make enough money to pay them off. They’re stuck in a spiral of debt simply for trying to better their career outcomes.

Luckily, 2010 saw the end of Sallie Mae, but not before harming the lives of millions of Americans. Plus, how can anyone guarantee that nightmares like Sallie Mae won’t come back to haunt future students? If student debt is such an issue, but college is such a necessity, how can a young future college student make a decision?

How You Can Make College Work for Anyone

Unfortunately for many, the cost of college education might be out of reach. Even with the help of student financial aid, some schools are simply too pricey for many young Americans. However, there are alternatives that any student and parent can get behind.

For one, the best colleges are not the most expensive. Ivy League schools always come to mind as some of the best, but history and price does not equal an exceptional education.

Many outstanding schools exist that will never make the top ten lists, and that are well within a reasonable price range for financial aid. Plus, those common US News & World Report college ranking guides are all based on arbitrary numbers that change every year, and many schools will lie to keep their rankings up. There is simply no scientific rating to accurately rank the best schools in America.

Instead, you should shop around and look for the schools that fit your needs best. If that means small classes and lower costs, then so be it. Do your research on professors and degree programs, but don’t let arbitrary lists deter you from seeking out the best colleges.

Plus, in-state public schools tend to be a better long-term investment than expensive private schools.

Community colleges are also a wonderful option for low-income families, or even those students that are unsure about their degree path.

Many community colleges offer quality education for a fraction of the price, and those credits can be transferred to bigger universities if students even want to switch schools. Since even an associate’s degree can increase your chances of having a better salary, it’s worth it to go at least for a few years.

If you find later down the road that you enjoy it, you can always go back and finish up school with a bachelor’s, master’s, or even more. The more education you seek, the better your chances of increasing your wages and avoiding unemployment.

As for student loans, avoid taking out too much and certainly avoid private student loans. Additionally, make sure you (or your student) fills out the FAFSA, as this can help you see what scholarships or grants you’re eligible for in the coming school year. The more free money you can get now, the less you’ll have to pay back once you get your degree.

If you are questioning attending college, don’t force yourself into debt and a mediocre education, but provide yourself with the information you need to make an informed decision.

College has become a rite of passage for many American youths, but it has also become a necessity in our current economy. It can be hard to swallow the cost of education, but there are many options out there that can make it a little easier to get that degree you need.

Written By
Katie McBeth is a researcher and writer out of Boise, ID, with experience in marketing for small businesses and management. Her favorite subject of study is millennials, and she has been featured on Fortune Magazine and the Quiet Revolution. She writes during the day and snuggles up with a book and her three cats and dog at night. You can follow her writing adventures on Instagram or Twitter.

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