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The Cost of Not Getting a College Degree

Think College is Expensive? Think about this…

As millions of college students start school this fall and prospective students labor over college applications or consider attending college, it’s worth examining the cost of “not” obtaining or finishing a degree in higher education. Attainment of post-secondary credentials is not just about the money and career flexibility, it’s also about enriching lives and opening a world of opportunity for a lifetime.

As a university instructor and the only person in my immediate family to have completed college, I believe the costs of not having a degree can have lifelong implications. Such implications were often discussed in my family. My grandfather immigrated to the United States from Italy, learned the English language by reading a newspaper, didn’t attend college and built a life as a tailor. He wanted his son, my father, to have greater career options so encouraged him to pursue higher education. My father chose not to attend college. He became a newspaper photographer, and over his lifetime reflected on the options and benefits that would have been available to him had he heeded my grandfather’s counsel. Such options were the ability to change career paths or move into more diverse roles. But most importantly to him, it was the option of having exposure to a learning environment that increased a person’s depth of knowledge -- the ability to learn more about history, different cultures, human behavior, finance and accounting, the legal and political systems.

As a child and adolescent, I recall many conversations with my father about how he felt that the future workforce will largely need college credentials, often citing his father’s prescience on this matter and that the third generation of our family could not afford to pass up graduating from college. It wasn’t just about financially supporting a family; it was about opening a world of learning opportunities, meeting the needs of the workplace, and having career options.

Personal history aside, as a working professional having graduated from college and later returning to academia as faculty with several universities, I see every day the costs of not going to college. As instructors, we are charged with understanding the demands and needs of the workplace to help prepare a future workforce for a generation. Both in the workplace and in academia, I see those finishing college having access to more career options, higher pay, and an institutionalized learning framework that serves them for a lifetime. The workplace is a more challenging and interconnected place than ever, with complex global, corporate, and meritocratic systems valuing the discipline, rigor, and training received in post-secondary education.

In discussing the “cost” of not attending and finishing college, it must be acknowledged that the ever-rising cost of tuition and student loan debt are important considerations. There are options available to positively address access and affordability of higher education, including for low-income and minority populations. I encourage those on the fence of attending college to explore these options.

You can’t afford not to complete college

Attending and graduating from college is an important decision with lifelong implications. While much has been written about the monetary value of a college degree, here are a few “lifetime costs” of not completing college.

  1. Limited earning potential

The most obvious cost of not getting a college degree is earning potential. People who do not complete their degree generally cannot command a high rate of pay. According to a Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce study (Carnevale, Ross, & Cheah), bachelor’s degree holders earn 31 percent more than Associate’s degree holders, and 84 percent more than those with just a high school diploma.

  1. Diminished options for career changes

Another cost of not getting a college degree is decreased optionality to make a career change. More employers are hiring people with college degrees in jobs that did not previously require those credentials, and this is especially true in tight labor markets. According to a 2014 CareerBuilder national survey of more than 2,000 hiring managers and human resources professionals across industries and company sizes, 30 percent are hiring more college-educated workers for positions that were previously held by high school graduates.

  1. Limiting our personal knowledge base

Post-secondary credentials are the table stakes in the game of life and not just the workplace. Higher education provides students the ability to grow and develop as a human being over the course of a lifetime, helping them learn, and acquire knowledge in a variety of subject areas. It is no longer good enough to receive on-the-job training or take a few college courses for credits. These days the ability to positively flourish in society, both personally and professionally, requires more rigorous training and a completed college degree. Results from McGraw Hill Education’s 2017 annual Future Workforce Survey indicate that students will feel fulfilled in their career if they have opportunities to learn and grow as a professional. With a college degree, one can develop skills like critical and abstract thinking, which are desirable both personally and professionally. Finishing college can also be a learning structure that sets one up for a lifetime of satiating curiosity, problem-solving and positively contributing to society. In fact, according to a 2016 College Board study (Ma, Pender, & Welcher), college graduates show higher rates of civic engagement and volunteerism at more than twice the rate of high-school graduates.

  1. Decreasing health and happiness

Those with a college degree generally will lead a more healthy and happy life as compared with those not possessing post-secondary credentials. A recent study from the University of Maine (Trostel) purports that those with higher education live healthier, happier lives and contribute to the economic prosperity of communities. The study finds that college graduates report having “good” or “very good” health 44 percent more compared to those without a degree, and are more likely to exercise, wear seat belts, regularly see a doctor, maintain a healthy weight and not smoke. It should be no surprise that college graduates have a life expectancy of seven years longer than those with no post-secondary education. In fact, a survey of more than 3,000 adults by the Pew Research Center indicates that college graduates also have a higher likelihood of being happy, with 42 percent reporting being very happy compared with 30 percent of those with high school or less schooling.

Pay It Forward and Join the Future Workforce

Beyond the financial, let’s regard obtaining a college degree as an investment the development of a human being. As a college instructor helping to prepare hundreds of students for the workplace each year, and regularly hearing from former students about how finishing college was essential to their personal and professional success, I see every day how finishing college is an investment in our development as human beings.

Attainment of a post-secondary degree can positively enhance students’ lives and the lives of all of those around them. So for students on the fence about pursuing a post-secondary education, I encourage you to explore degree programs and schools for the right fit with your interests, and identify options to address college affordability. For those in college, feel firm with your intentions and commitment, and please finish what you’ve started. And remember to ask yourself, can you afford to pass it up?


CareerBuilder. (2014). Education Requirements for Employment on the Rise, According to CareerBuilder Survey 3&sd=3%2F20%2F2014

Carnevale, Anthony P., Rose, Stephen J., Cheah, Ban. (2011). The College Payoff. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce

McGraw-Hill Education. (2017). 2017 Future Workforce Survey

Ma, Jennifer., Pender, Matea., Welch, Meredith. (2016). Education Pays 2016. CollegeBoard

Trostel, Philip. (2015). It’s Not Just the Money. Lumina Foundation

About the Author

Christopher G. Bona is adjunct faculty at Purdue University’s Brian Lamb School of Communication. He teaches a mix of business and communications courses.

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