In defense of a college degree

January 6, 2023, 3:06 PM UTC
A college degree isn't worthless.
Igor Alecsander—Getty Images

An Atlanta-based company is offering to pay people to drop out of college. 

Online career learning site CourseCareers is offering a $10,00 signing bonus to any student currently enrolled in college who drops out and accepts a full-time job offer with the company. 

And the press release was spinning this as a good thing. 

“There are millions of really talented people enrolled in college that are wasting their time and money learning useless, outdated information. We want to help these students realize their full potential and are willing to pay for it,” company founder Troy Buckholdt said in a statement. 

A spokesman for the company said the $10,000 can be used to pay off current student loan debt and added CourseCareers provides “an environment of continued education.” He noted that the company had recently hired a 21-year-old software engineer who is earning over $100,000 and is “completely self taught.”

The CourseCareers spokesman, however, did not address Fortune’s questions on whether it offers any other student loan repayment help or any benefits or stipends to help employees pay for formal continuing education opportunities. 

But the offer begs the question: Is Gen Z so disillusioned with college and worried about the debt that comes with getting a degree that this ploy would appeal?

If so, it’s worth setting the record straight. A college degree is still a valuable asset—even in this competitive job market where job seekers seem to have an advantage. Yes, there were still about 10.4 million jobs available in November, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And yes, many employers have lowered the standards for entry-level jobs and did away with degree requirements during the Great Resignation.

But those with a college degree still earn more—basically from day one. Full-time workers between 22 and 27 years old who hold a bachelor’s degree earn a median wage of $52,000 a year. Those with only a high school diploma earn just $30,000, according to data published in November 2022 from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

And that degree boost adds up over the course of a lifetime. Americans with a bachelor’s degree rack up a median lifetime earnings of $2.8 million. Those with a high school diploma or a GED earn about $1.6 million, according to a 2021 report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

There’s an even wider earnings gap among those with doctoral and professional degrees, with those Americans earning a cumulative median of $4 million and $4.7 million, respectively, over the course of their careers. Moreover, those with at least a bachelor’s degree tend to face less unemployment and underemployment. 

An offer like the one touted by CourseCareers may be especially harmful financially to students who have already taken on student loans. Borrowers who don’t finish their degree are three times more likely to default on their loans, usually because they don’t have the same financial and career benefits they would if they had earned a diploma. 

Of course, the financial advantages of a degree can vary depending on a wide range of factors, including occupation, gender, race and ethnicity, and location. And let’s be clear: not all degrees are worth the same. Getting a good return on your investment strongly depends on which school you attend and what you decide to study. 

Beyond the monetary benefits, college can also provide young professionals with an understanding of the importance of continual learning. Many employers complain that college students aren’t acquiring all the skills needed for the job market. And that may be true. But college graduates are more often conditioned to learn—and will continue to pick up new skills and proficiencies, even outside the classroom. 

A good degree program will also focus on building a foundation of knowledge. In a graphic design program, for example, students typically learn about both art and design principles, as well as the practical application of working with the actual design software and necessary coding where applicable. 

Practical skills learned in the classroom can (and do) become quickly outdated, especially in tech fields. But building a strong foundation can help graduates continue to apply those skills, even when the application evolves. And that’s what continuing education is for. No one should assume that they will learn everything they need to know for their entire career in college. Many professions, particularly those that require licensing, require continued education. 

The college experience can also serve as a launch pad for building professional connections. While it’s up to individuals to take full advantage of relationship-building during college, it’s the first time that many young people get the opportunity to make connections that can help them throughout their career, from alumni networks to mentoring professors to friendships forged during on-campus activities and clubs. About 70% of Americans report they snagged their current job through networking

Sure, there’s an argument to be made that not everyone needs to go to college, and not every profession should require a college degree. But it’s irresponsible to downplay the value of a bachelor’s degree. Despite the many problems within higher education right now, earning a college degree still provides one of the best chances for long-term professional and financial success. Even if you have to spend years paying off the debt.

Maybe, at the very least, if someone offers you money to drop out of college, negotiate for more than $10,000.

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

Our new weekly Impact Report newsletter examines how ESG news and trends are shaping the roles and responsibilities of today’s executives. Subscribe here.

Read More

InflationReal EstateInvestingCompensationCareersStudent Loans and Debt