Are you, or someone you love, considering going to college?  While on the surface, the decision seems simple, there are a lot of angles to consider and this decision is going to have long-term impacts.

Today, college seems to be more expensive than ever, while the value you actually get from a degree appears to be (at best) murky.  Is this true?

The cost of college through the years

Since 1980, the cost of college has risen 1200%.  The cost for a degree has grown over 5 times faster than inflation.  In other words, when you are deciding to go to college, especially if you will need to take loans out to pay for it, you are making a critical decision which could impact your finances for decades to come.

Credit: Visual Capitalist (

How did we get here?

While there are many variables that contributed to soaring costs of college, many point back to the Higher Education Act of 1965 as the start.  This was signed by then-President Lyndon Johnson, and intended to ‘strengthen the educational resources of our colleges and universities and to provide financial assistance for students…’

As part of the bill, more federal money was given to universities, scholarships were created, and a low-interest loan program was established for students.

While the motivation behind passing this act was certainly good (and has benefitted millions of students since), there was one severe unintended consequence.  The huge amounts of excess money (which was backed by the Federal government) created a gold-rush of sorts amongst colleges.  They were able to raise tuition precipitously, armed with the knowledge that now there were billions of dollars of low-interest capital that students could now borrow.

Today, nearly 60 cents of every dollar spent on tuition is backed by the federal government.  Why should colleges choose to keep tuition at reasonable rates when the federal government was continually increasing the amount of dollars up for grabs?

So, is a college education now useless?

Not at all.  This simply means the price of college has shifted meaningfully relative to the return on investment.  Back in 1980s (when college was 12 times cheaper), it wasn’t critical that you selected a highly in-demand major, or only attended an elite university, because the cost was comparatively small to what it is today.

However, in today’s world, any potential student needs to be very careful about taking on the financial burden that going to college often entails.

If you are going to take out loans, you should be able to answer:

  • How much will I have to take out to make it to graduation?
  • What size of monthly payment does that mean I’ll have to make?
  • What type of income can I expect to earn with the degree I want?

If you can’t answer those questions, or if the amount you’ll be forced to pay back every month is going to command a huge portion of your income, you may want to consider alternative paths besides college.

What alternatives to college should I consider?

There are quite literally thousands of ways to earn an incredible living that do not require a college degree.  Surprisingly, these ‘alternative’ career paths are not widely marketed or understood.

One of the fastest ways to earn a college-level income (and pay none of the college-level cost) is to learn a skilled trade.  Careers like electricians, solar panel installers, carpenters, mechanics, or medical assistants all command impressive salaries and can be learned through an apprenticeship.

To learn more about skilled trades, check out the Periodic Table of Skilled Trades or try our Career Quiz and see what might be a fit for you!

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Browse career overviews of the different options you have in the skilled trades:
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