Like many moms faced with the threat of peer pressure on their kids, my mom was fond of the saying, “If everyone was jumping off a cliff, would you?
The obvious answer is no. Such a choice would incur certain death or injury. But things aren’t always so clear when it comes to the immense pressure around getting a college degree.

But is a college degree always the answer?

By now, it’s no secret that college degrees, on average, equal higher earnings. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, high school grads make a median salary of about $626 per week. Associate’s degree-holders make a tad more per week at $761. Getting a bachelor’s degree takes you to $1,025 weekly. Then a professional degree (say, a JD or a MBA) will boost you to $1,529.

So more educational attainment means more money. And more money is a good thing, right? Therefore, getting a degree is always a smart move, right?

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Let’s take a step back from the money for a minute and talk about you. After all, you’re a living, breathing person, not some cold, unfeeling ATM machine whose only purpose in life is to generate cash. Even (or especially) the wealthiest people will tell you that success is all about passion and knowing what game you are playing.

Don’t jump into the commitment of years in college, and financing that education, without taking a serious look at yourself and your circumstances. This may sound strange coming from a website that promotes colleges and universities, but for many careers, you don’t need a college degree to succeed. Having said that, for many careers you do need specific degrees and certifications.

In the next few paragraphs, we’ve laid out four questions you should ask yourself before making the decision to get a college degree:

1. What do you love to do?

Hollywood legend Katherine Hepburn was once quoted as saying, “If you have to support yourself, you had bloody well better find some way that is going to be interesting.”

You can never underestimate the importance of passion, especially in regards to career. If you work full-time, you will likely spend approximately 80,000 hours in your career. That’s a long time to spend doing something just for money.

Some may dismiss this as touchy-feely nonsense, insisting that work is hard and you can’t expect it to be enjoyable or even fulfilling. But there is ample evidence to suggest that the people that rise to the top of their fields are those who have a deep-seated interest in and passion for that field.

All of this is to say that there is more to success than just earning a piece of paper or a title. At the end of the day, passion matters a lot more than a degree. A college degree is but a tool in your toolkit; what you do with it is up to you.

This question will determine more of your success in your career than any of the questions that follow.

2. How does your field value education?

education college degree worthNow that you’ve figured out what you really want to do, you need to determine if college is required to meet that goal. Many fields, like IT or Design, value formal education less and less; portfolios and experience rule in these fields. In other fields, like Law or Medicine, college degrees are an absolute necessity, an unavoidable rite of passage. Then there are many fields in between in which a degree may help, but is not required.

Before committing to any degree program, find out how much your chosen field values a college degree. Talk to professionals and hiring managers and get their advice. You may find that your time is better spent building up real-world experience. Or you may find that you will need those letters after your name to even get your resume in the door.

3. Are you ready to pay?

I mean financially, but I also mean temporally—in time—and in effort. You will likely pay more for a college degree than you will for your next car. Add to that all of the time, sacrifice, and tears it will take to successfully complete a degree program and you end up with some hefty expenses.

Contrary to some ad pitches about financial aid you may see online, financial aid might not always cover all of your expenses. It depends on your individual needs. Some people don’t qualify for Pell grants, for instance. They can qualify for Stafford loans, but even those can be an expensive way to finance an education, with rising interest rates that rival many home loans.

paying for school financial aid pell grantAsk yourself some tough questions. Can you keep working while in school? If you are taking out loans, are you willing to have those debt payments hanging over your head for years after you graduate? Are you sure enough about your future success that you are willing to incur that kind of risk? Be realistic with yourself and give your budget a big margin of safety.

Aside from the financial side, are you willing to put in three hours of homework time for every credit hour you take on? Are you willing to say no to television shows, friends, and sometimes family to make sure you do well in your degree?

In short, a college degree is too expensive to go in only semi-committed or strained financially. If you are not prepared to shoulder these burdens, you might want to consider other, less expensive ways, to improve your career.

4. What else could you be doing?

In economics, they refer to this as opportunity cost, “the cost related to the next-best choice available to someone.” In laymen’s terms, what else could you be doing? What is the best use of your resources and time?

Your time may be better spent getting your hands dirty on the job or learning a computer program. Forgetting all of the clutter you’ve heard about college and success, think objectively about what would be the best, most profitable use of your time.

The option to get a college degree is a great privilege, to be sure. But it is but one option among many. Give this important decision all of the time and soul-searching it deserves. You will be grateful you did.

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