Let’s face it. With staggering debt, a substantial time commitment and no promise of gainful employment, is a college education worth it?

Deciding on going to college or even finding the right college depends on how one actually defines value, doesn’t it? For some, the value of a college education can come in the form of self-development. The sheer opportunity and joy of learning and growing can be enough to motivate someone to attend college and rationalize the expense. And yet others are looking for a more definitive return on investment such as a job immediately following graduation that pays enough to cover the bills and have a meaningful quality of life. Even more so, a college education should also pay dividends into the future through promotions and even higher earnings, right?

Is college worth the cost? There is evidence through the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to support the correlation of educational attainment and increases in median earnings. Those with a bachelor’s degree earn, on average, $459 more each week than someone with only a high school diploma. Even further, the unemployment rate decreases significantly with a degree. Those with an associate’s degree have a 3.8% unemployment rate while those with a high school diploma average 5.4% unemployment (a master’s degree is only 2.4% unemployment).

The investment to earn the credential or degree is a major piece of the value proposition. Vocational training can average $33,000 with average earnings near or above the tuition while a bachelor’s degree can cost $127,000 and average annual income for an entry-level position around $46,900.

According to the Detroit Free Press, college grads in the class of 2016 will have a record level of about $37,000 in student loan debt for a bachelor’s degree. Those graduating with a master’s degree will have an average of $43,500 in college loans and for those studying medicine or law – the debt can easily be over six figures. Keep in mind that not everyone graduates on time either which adds to the debt and delayed earnings by not being in the workforce faster.

It is also worthwhile to consider the future of higher education given other options. Will the traditional four years, brick and mortar experience sustain? Many are still getting used to the “click” and mortar hybrid education models and yet there is so much more out there. For instance, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been around since 2008 and credentialing and badging have grown substantially since the introduction of open badges by Mozilla in 2011. In fact, millions of badges have been awarded to hundreds of thousands of participants and the open badges community is working on the next version. Keep in mind that the new specifications are focused on verifiable learning similar to those of higher education accrediting agencies.

A 2016 study conducted by the University Professional Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), found that one in five colleges have issued digital badges. They also coined the term “T-shaped” graduates who have a combination of deep, “vertical” knowledge in a particular area (such as a college major) and a broader set of “horizontal” skills in areas like communication skills, teamwork, and appreciate diverse cultures. The sheer speed of knowledge acquisition may bring value to this type of credential (not to mention it’s low cost and ease of access).

The good news is the acting Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is a big fan of education whether public or private. She also believes in less federal oversight and regulations with more power going to the state. Under her tenure, alternate forms of education and learning may see more growth and acceptance.

Where does all this information leave the person considering college? And if so, choosing the right college? My guess is probably in a more confused state. That is why we suggest anyone considering any form of higher education to adopt the “Five Factors of Fit” to sort through the options.

The “Five Factors of Fit” begins by considering the initial question about value. What does value mean to you? Relatedly, one has to determine their goals and where they want to be in the future. With this information in hand, we encourage an exploration of programs and interests. There are several online resources to help determine what major/program might be a good fit.

Next, it’s important to determine what skills you currently have as well as those that will be required to be successful in your chosen career field. Are you willing to spend the time and resources necessary to acquire these skills? If not, take a step back and look at other areas of interest to find something more in line with your abilities and interests. A good place to start is to determine what skills you already find as strengths. At that point, you can then determine what further skills you are willing to develop.

One area that warrants focus is an in-depth understanding of what you value. Think about it. If the direction you are moving toward doesn’t align with what you believe in or value than you will more than likely feel a great tension and ultimately drop out. For example, at a recent high school presentation one of the students stated they wanted to become a surgeon but when another classmate informed them about the rigor, time commitment and life of a surgeon, there was a value question raised. Did their priorities align with this kind of commitment? This factor is something that represents the core of who you are. It will include your entire life outlook. Psychology Today offers a Values Profile survey to help you uncover what is most important to you. Take your time on this factor. But most importantly, be honest with yourself. It will go a long way.

Another element that needs to be considered within the “Five Factors of Fit” is one’s life situation. Through a series of self-discovery questions, one must explore their motivations, potential obstacles to enrollment along with possible solutions. Further, there must be consideration of others involved in the decision and how their opinions and resources play a role in the decision. Finally, what is most important in a learning environment? Is it self-paced learning such as MOOCs or an online option? Or do you prefer a campus with a lively and engaged study body?

Putting all of this information together is key to determining “Fit.” The alignment of one’s goals to the school, program/interests, values and life situation is the key. For those seeking a resource that puts this all together, check and see if the colleges you are considering offer pre-enrollment advising through their admissions office or an automated solution such as MyGuidance Coach®. This legally endorsed, pre-enrollment advising software helps prospective students explore their interests, research career options, proactively identify and resolve potential challenges, and review customized school resources from any desktop or mobile device 24/7.

Given the high drop out rates in college it’s essential to take the time to review these areas to make a meaningful decision about what college is right for me. Talk to people you trust, do your in-depth research and take some time for introspection. The more time spent in this phase, the easier the rest of the process will be. Good luck on the journey!

SOURCES

5 Things to Know About Trump’s Pick for Education Secretary by Emily Deruy, The Atlantic, Nov 3, 2016.

Digital Badges and Academic Transformation by Veronica Diaz, Published: Thursday, September 1, 2016. EDUCASE Review

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Earnings and Unemployment Rates by Educational Attainment, 2015.