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Utah Business

Before going to college, consider whether the cost of your education is worth what you will earn in your career.

Is College Worth The Money? (A Cost-Benefit Analysis)

I graduated from Texas Christian University with a bachelor’s degree in fashion merchandising and a minor in French. Two years later, I was working as a writer for Williams-Sonoma, and thereafter spent the remainder of my career in writing and journalism―making my college education largely null and void.

One could argue that there is worth in a liberal arts education, even if the larger focus of my studies went unused, and that might be true. But I can’t help but wonder if it was worth $100,000―the total sum spent on my college education by the time I graduated in 2007. 

Many feel the same. Depending on the poll you read, half to three-quarters of Americans believe their college educations weren’t worth the cost. And it’s not hard to wonder why. I spent $2,700 per class to take “Drawing for Beginners,” “Fashion Illustration,” and “The History of Costume.” I probably would have been better off reading a book. 

And yet, like many students, I was told that college is what I’d have to do to get a good job and earn a good living. 

Don’t go to college

Individuals who complete a bachelor’s degree make $23,972 more annually than those with only a high-school diploma. And perhaps that’s why many of our parents encouraged us to go out and get an education. But is it really the degree that’s responsible for our success? Or is the ability to pay for a degree?

It’s true that, statistically speaking, our nation’s most successful candidates are highly educated. According to a well-cited Kauffman survey, 95.1 percent of entrepreneurs earned bachelor’s degrees, and 47 percent of them received advanced degrees. 85 percent of Forbes’ 400 richest people in the US have a bachelor’s degree. Of US presidents, all but nine held bachelor’s degrees (and most of them had law degrees). 

But it’s also true that our nation’s most successful individuals come from wealth. “Advantages beget advantages,” says an article from the American Psychological Association. “Those who are born in the upper-class echelons are likely to remain in the upper class. And high-earning entrepreneurs disproportionately originate from highly educated and well-to-do families.” Or as one Quartz article eloquently puts it: “Entrepreneurs don’t have a special gene for risk. They come from families with money.”

This is not exactly an inspiring message. When I set out to write this article I expected to find several careers that would allow those who can’t afford college, or who don’t want to take on debt, to earn a six-figure income. It’s much more discouraging to find that your future monetary success comes less from your personal effort and more from your wealthy upbringing.

And yet, some of those wealthy individuals are working to change that. Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg led the charge, leaving school to start Virgin Records, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook. Their companies no longer require degrees of their entry-level job applicants, and even offer internship programs for teenagers. 

Silicon Valley’s coveted Thiel Fellowship took it a step further, offering $100,000 to “young people who want to build new things instead of sitting in a classroom.” Companies started by the fellows have raised $73 million in venture financing, all without a college education. Their website quotes Margaret Mead: “My grandmother wanted me to have an education, so she kept me out of school.”

Find an alternative

“Our grandparents could come out of high school, go to work at Kennecott, and make really good money with nothing but a high school education,” says Mark Knold, senior economist at the Utah Department of Workforce Services. “Computer programming is today’s Kennecott. You can make really good money in the tech world without a bachelor’s degree.”

Tech has definitely seen the most innovation when it comes to alternative courses of education. DevMountain, for one, offers immersive and after-hours training programs in web development, iOS development, UX design, and software Q&A testing, without all the language and math requirements. Programs are between $7,500 and $11,900 and take only three months to complete.

According to Course Report, the average starting salary of a coding bootcamp graduate is $64,528, still higher than the average earnings of most college graduates. “At MX we’ve found some great candidates coming out of dev bootcamps as an alternative to four-year degrees,” says Brandon Woolf, executive vice president of People Operations. “They are hungry and striving to learn all the coding skills they can. 

“While a bootcamp candidate typically won’t earn as much compensation out of the gates as a four-year computer science degree, the bootcamp certification does provide a foot in the door for a tech company that may need entry-level tech talent.”

Even if you’re not on the tech side of things, you’re likely to end up on the business side of things. Office jobs make up half of American jobs, and the bulk of the high paying ones. Correspondingly, business is by largely the most pursued college major. But degrees in sales, marketing, or operations are not always effective. “They are generally obsolete before you get them,” says Jason Owen of his 2001 marketing degree.

Now the senior vice president of strategy and corporate development at Progrexion, Mr. Owen cautions against the relevancy of business degrees. “Thinking that a tenured professor could be up to speed on Instagram marketing and how that affects Facebook audiences is almost laughable. The marketing technologies that companies use are always changing… and fast.”

Instead, he recommends experience over education. “When looking to hire candidates today, I don’t spend as much time considering specifics in a marketing degree, or actually if they even have a marketing degree,” he says. “Show me a new grad that has decent SQL and Excel skills, and I can teach them marketing… you can’t teach experience.”

Start at the bottom

Though many executives I spoke with mentioned that individuals might not need a degree if they have quality experience, few admitted to hiring teenagers without any. Which left me with a gap to fill: If you’re eighteen years old, and know your degree won’t be worth the money, how do you go about getting that first job? And getting the experience that will set you up for career success later on?

The answer is: start at the bottom. Erin Caldwell, for one, started college but abandoned it after she couldn’t decide on a major. Thinking she would take a break until she figured out what she wanted to do, she got a job as a personal assistant at MX, making $30,000 a year. After two years, she started taking on additional responsibilities and pivoted into a training role, earning $40,000, then $60,000, then $70,000. 

She’s now been with MX for eight years, holds a position of leadership as the director of client voice and makes a salary higher than many her age―degreed or not. “If you’re planning on skipping the college experience,” she says, “you have to be willing to come in at the very bottom and be open-minded as to where it can take you.” It may take some time to work your way up, but after four years, you’ll be at about the same salary as a bachelor’s student just entering the workforce―without all the debt they incurred.

Though corporate careers have become something of a mainstay, there’s still something to be said of more tactical careers. Juan Aguirre, for one, is a general foreman at JT Thorpe & Son, a refractory contractor in Salt Lake City, and he never needed a four-year degree. He got a union job right out of high school earning $16.50/hour plus time and a half. Fourteen years later he makes close to six figures working with his hands as a skilled carpenter, bricklayer, and welder.  

“Right now an [entry-level] bricklayer makes over $28 an hour and it goes up every year,” says Joe Rigby, regional office manager. “After overtime, double-time, and that kind of stuff, most bricklayers make well into the $70,000s, and supervisors are close to six figures.” Though that might sound like a lot of work, Mr. Aguirre reports getting close to four months off every year, if he wants it.

Creative jobs also don’t require a bachelor’s degree―though that’s often because the cost of a college education is not worth the future earning potential. It might not make a lot of sense, for instance, to spend $80,000 on a bachelor’s degree in photography, when the career itself will only pay $32,438 a year, on average. 

Not to mention, many artists maintain the idea that creativity can’t be taught, only practiced. With this in mind, some get their start on the business side of things―writing marketing copy for a software company, for instance, or photographing product for a brand. Others pursue their craft as a side hobby, painting works on the side of a day job, making music in their spare time, or attending auditions after hours.

No matter the career path you wish to take, there’s usually a way to start at the bottom and work your way up. 

Know when the degree is worth it

There are, of course, several fields that do still require a degree―and they are often worth the cost. Engineers, for instance, earn higher-paying salaries than most other disciplines and the same goes for medicine. As a highly skilled field there is a direct correlation between the amount of schooling an individual receives, and the amount of income that individual will earn. In those cases, the cost of education is well worth the future payoff. 

Creatively, orchestral musicians are also typically college-educated. “Almost all symphony players have a bachelor’s degree in music performance (BMu),” says Andrew Williams, orchestra personnel manager at the Utah Symphony. “And quite a few have either a graduate degree or some type of post-graduate certificate.” The average orchestral musician makes $70,000 a year, well worth the cost of quality music training.

There are, however, some roles that are not as good of a return on investment. Educators of all levels, for instance, require at least a bachelor’s degree, as do social workers―despite the fact that these are categorically low paying positions. If this is the route an individual wishes to take, less expensive schooling options such as community college or a state school might be best.

I didn’t know what career I wanted when I entered college―or when I exited it. And using a liberal arts education to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up was a very expensive exercise. That’s why I believe it’s worth going into college knowing whether one of the biggest expenses your lifetime will be worth the investment. 

Elle is the former editor-in-chief of Utah Business and a freelance writer for Esquire, Forbes, and The Muse. She now writes a newsletter called The Elysian. Learn more at