Why You Should Stay in College in an Improved Economy

© Copyright 2012 CorbisCorporationThe New York Times reported recently that there has been a 2% drop in college enrollments in the past year, largely at community and for-profit colleges, and it has sent admissions representatives scrambling for bodies to fill their classrooms. The article predicts that there will soon be a corresponding decrease at traditional four-year institutions as well, due among other things to a drop in the population of college-age Americans following years of steady growth.

But there was another reason that college enrollments increased in the past twenty years: a stagnant and declining economy. Jobs were hard to come by, and savvy (or desperate) high school graduates and adults who were unemployed viewed college as the best route to gaining more marketable job skills. As New York Times writer Richard Perez-Pena makes clear,

“The college-age population is dropping after more than a decade of sharp growth, and many adults who opted out of a forbidding job market and went back to school during the recession have been drawn back to work by the economic recovery.”

I understand this. We live in difficult financial times, when the cost of housing, health care, groceries, and pretty much all other aspects of secure existence, have risen to such an extent that most Americans are in debt just trying to meet their minimal needs. It’s a sad fact that though the value of real wages has only increased 21% since 1990, the cost of living has increased 67%, more than three times that amount.

So it’s natural to choose employment over education when there are opportunities available. Who wants to rack up debt when you can pay it down instead? But should you forego or drop out of college? I don’t recommend it.

Leaving College for a Job Could Be the Biggest Mistake You Ever Make

The very nature of our economy means that the more skills and knowledge you have, the better off you will be:

  • According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those with less than a college degree are more likely to experience unemployment throughout their lifetime. Why is this important to know? Capitalism, our economic system, is often characterized by what critics call “boom and bust” cycles. Though there is disagreement about this, one thing is certain: in the past 100 years, the American economy has been subject to repeated instances of economic crisis, in which unemployment rates grow to dangerous heights, such as those seen in the past five years. If you leave school for a job now, what will you do if that job disappears and a recession or depression begins? See this chart (below) for evidence of the importance of a college degree in fending off unemployment.


  • College graduates earn more over a lifetime than non-degree holders. This is so well-known I don’t know why we can still find articles on how “college isn’t worth the investment.” Wait, I do know why: the people who write them haven’t finished college, or else they would understand basic math! If you want to read evidence from a source that does understand basic math, check out Georgetown University’s “The College Payoff: Education, Occupations, Lifetime Earning,” which shows that “A high school dropout can expect to earn $973,000 over a lifetime,” while “A worker with a Bachelor’s degree will earn $2.3 million over a lifetime.” This means that though it may seem wise to drop out of college to earn money, that’s a short-term decision that can hurt your long-term success.
  • Anecdotal evidence suggests that college graduates are healthier and happier than non-college graduates. Researchers at Notre Dame University “found a 28% reduction in early mortality for college graduates.” When I read this, I immediately assumed that this probably has a lot to do with having greater economic security, because that means less stress and more access to affordable health care, but the researchers accounted for those factors. Instead, it seems that college graduates experience “fewer deaths from cancer and heart disease.” There is also a strong correlation between states with the highest number of college graduates and states with higher levels of general well-being among their populations. It is believed that the ability to pursue one’s true interests, coupled with college graduates’ greater income potential, better health, and lower divorce rates, all contribute to happier lives.

How to Stay in College While Working

OK, now we know why it’s important to stay in school. But the reality for many students is that it’s just not financially feasible. Are those students going to be left in the cold, forced to leave college even though we all know it’s better to stay in school and finish a degree?

Not if I have anything to say about it. Students can manage their employment needs with their desire to complete college in many ways. I’ve written before about how to balance work and school commitments, and those tips are still valid, including making sure that you talk to your boss, but those tips were focused only on students already enrolled in college and working.

Below, I’ve included a broad range of suggestions to help you stay in school even when the employment world tempts you, specifically the steps you can take while still in high school, how to select a degree program, and how to leverage your college experience to continue working.

  • Plan, Plan, Plan. College is a big expense and isn’t something you should start on the spur-of-the-moment. High school students considering college but who need to work should consider living at home with family, if possible. It will save you money on living expenses, even if your parents ask you to contribute to the family finances. While dorm living can be fun, it comes with a hefty price tag. If you are a non-traditional student, for example a full-time employee or parent interested in going back to school, you will need to consider how your budget will determine how much you can spend on tuition. You can also take online courses while living at home, to reduce living and commuting expenses. Full knowledge of your financial situation can help you understand how much you will need to work and earn while enrolled in college.
  • Be realistic about both your job needs and career goals when choosing a degree program. I am the last person to suggest that anyone go to college strictly based on the employment market’s needs, but there are practical benefits to thinking clearly about your economic realities. I’ll give you an example: If you want to become a doctor but have to work at least part-time to put yourself through school, you’d be better off fulfilling your desire to work in the medical field by becoming a nurse or medical assistant first, because the program isn’t as long and you can enroll part-time. The time requirements of an M.D. program are such that working part- or full-time in addition to your studies will exhaust you and result in poor academic performance or the need to drop out.
  • Develop your career while still in school. This tip is all about leveraging your growing knowledge to secure employment in your field while still taking classes. If you want to become an early childhood educator, get a part- or full-time job at a nursery school or day care center. That way, you will graduate with both knowledge and experience and be more marketable when you have your degree in hand. More importantly, you can draw upon your work experiences as material for your schoolwork, which will help you manage both your job and your courses.
  • Bite the bullet and take out some loans. I know on a personal level how crippling student loan debt can be. But the long term investment may be worth it. This goes back to what I wrote above, about the higher earning potential of college graduates. Yes, you will have to pay back your student loans. But those loans will be paid off at some point, and after that you will have more income than those without degrees. If you do both-borrow loans and work part-time while in school–you can reduce your total loan amount without having to work full-time.
  • Take advantage of work-study programs. Stop by the work-study office at your college, and look through the posted jobs. Work-study employers are very sympathetic to students’ academic needs, and can work with you to create a manageable schedule that will enable you to work and continue your degree program.

College enrollment may be dropping, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to drop out of college, and the suggestions above can help you continue your education while still taking advantage of the newer job opportunities available!

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog