For some students, going to college is a no-brainer. But before you start filling out applications and taking college tours, answer this simple question: Why should you go to college in the first place? If you’ve never considered your reasons for pursuing higher education, answering that question may be more complicated than it first appears.
While college isn’t the right choice for everyone, here’s why a bachelor’s degree can be a smart move.
1. Higher Earnings
One of the most compelling reasons to attend college is to earn more money. Over a lifetime, a higher salary can add up to millions more dollars in the bank.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), those with bachelor’s degrees earned a median of $1,305 a week, while high school graduates earned $781. Annually, that amounts to a difference of nearly $30,000.
But what do those extra earnings look like over a 40+ year career? In a recent Georgetown University study, high school graduates earned a median of $1.6 million over their lives, compared to the $2.8 million earned by college grads—that’s a 75% increase in earnings.
Of course, a college degree doesn’t guarantee a high salary, and wages vary widely based on your chosen major and career. However, there is a strong correlation between education and wages, and those with higher degrees often out-earn those who skipped college. While college is expensive, it’s often worth the cost.
2. Increased Job Security
Graduating with a college degree typically leads to more job security, which means you’re less likely to face unemployment. According to BLS data from December 2021, the unemployment rate for workers with a college degree was 2.1%, compared to 4.6% for workers with a high school education.
What’s more, you may be better equipped to weather periods of economic turmoil if you have a college degree. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, those with high school degrees suffered greater declines in workforce participation than college grads.
Between February and May 2020, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, just 52% of high school graduates were working. In contrast, 72% of bachelor’s degree holders remained in the labor force. This may be because college graduates are more likely to work in industries that could quickly pivot to remote work during the pandemic.
During the Great Recession, similar trends occurred when unemployment peaked in 2010. Recent college grads between the ages 22 and 27 had an unemployment rate of 7.1% in June of that year, compared to a 16.2% unemployment rate for those in the same age group without college degrees.
3. Greater Life Satisfaction
More schooling could lead to a happier life—people with bachelor’s degrees tend to be happier than those without one. According to the Pew Research Center, 75% of American college grads are “very satisfied” with their family lives, but just 64% of those with less than a high school education say the same.
College grads also tend to have longer marriages than those with a high school education, and better marital outcomes can lead to increased happiness.
College-educated women have a nearly 80% chance of remaining married for at least 20 years, while women with a high school education or less have a 40% probability. Men follow similar trends; about 65% of men with a bachelor’s degree can expect their marriage will last 20 years or longer, compared with 50% of men with a high school diploma or less.
4. Easier Access to Health Insurance and Other Benefits
College graduates are more likely to work for companies that offer health insurance benefits than high school grads. According to a College Board study, 64% of college grads had access to employer-sponsored health insurance, while just 52% of those with a high school diploma did. For those who didn’t graduate high school, just 33% had access to medical coverage through their job.
College graduates are also more likely to have access to other perks like paid vacation and sick days, stock options, student loan assistance and retirement plans. Nearly 50% of college grads in the private sector had access to an employer-provided retirement plan, compared to about 40% of high school graduates.
5. Better Health Outcomes
Having a college education can actually help you live longer. Those with at least some college education have mortality rates that are less than half of those who haven’t attended college.
High school graduates who have never attended college have a higher rate of smoking—about 3.9 times greater than college graduates, according to a Lumina Foundation survey. Those who haven’t attended college also have a higher rate of obesity and heavy drinking.
There are many reasons that higher education correlates with better health. Those with college degrees have greater access to health insurance, which can lead to more preventative screenings. The higher salaries that often accompany college degrees can also lead to safer housing, better access to healthy foods, less exposure to pollutants and greater access to green spaces.
6. Opportunity to Pursue Niche Interests
A college degree isn’t just about earning more money or finding a good job. College can also be a place to pursue new passions and expand your worldview.
When you attend college, you can take classes outside of your major that expose you to new ideas and topics of study. You’ll learn new skills and develop interests that could be difficult to cultivate outside of that environment.
Being in college gives you access to experienced professors and talented classmates that can broaden your mind. You can learn from people at the top of their field that you might never otherwise have the opportunity to collaborate with.
7. Expand Your Professional Network
There’s a common adage in business: Your network is your net worth. In other words, the people you know can impact your professional standing, including how much you earn.
Going to college will inherently expand your network by giving you access to many people in your chosen industry. Your professors can write you recommendation letters that help you get hired, other students can help you learn about job openings and the university may host recruiting sessions on campus.
A college’s alumni network is also a powerful tool; many schools list alumni that you can reach out to if you’re looking for a job. You can often find other grads from your college on LinkedIn or through your college’s direct alumni network.
Even though attending college can offer numerous financial, health and social benefits, no degree can guarantee these things. Not all college grads will find success, just as many people who never attend college go on to achieve happy, prosperous lives.
There are many ways to build a solid career, including attending trade school, getting an online certificate or starting a business. If a four-year degree isn’t an option, an associate’s degree can help open more doors without requiring the same time and financial investment that a bachelor’s degree does.
With so many ways to teach yourself useful skills, you don’t have to attend college to have a successful career—but it may make things easier. If you’re not sure what you want to study or what career path to follow, take some time to explore your interests before deciding on a plan of action.