Whether or not a college education promises more than it delivers depends upon several factors. Four of them are:
1. what benefits the student expects to get
2. how well prepared the student is when entering college
3. how carefully the major and career goals are selected
4. what sacrifices the student needs to make in pursuit of his degree
First, the “promises” offered by a college education are subjective. Some students seem to think that college is primarily a way to put-off looking for work or setting a career goal. Others expect the degree to be an express ticket into a prestigious job. A lower expectation is more likely to be fulfilled than a higher one. A generalized expectation is more likely to be fulfilled than a more specific one. If the promise to Janine is that college will allow her to delay seeking work or selecting a career goal, the promise will be most likely be fulfilled – provided that she has financial aid from family or elsewhere. If the promise is that her education will give her new life skills, the promise will definitely be fulfilled. If, however, Janine perceives the promise to be an express ticket into a prestigious, high-paying job, she is likely to be disappointed. This is even more likely, if Janine has negative factors working against her. Some such factors could be ill health or no social supports.
Second, how much a student can get from her college education depends also on how well-prepared she is when she enters college. In the state where I live a student can enroll in a class even if she is not literate enough to read the text book. If she speaks the language that the lecturer speaks, reads and writes well, has a healthy home environment, general good health, and has excellent study habits, she will probably do well in most classes. If she lacks any or all of these or if she has a newly acquired or newly diagnosed learning disability it will probably be harder to earn the good grades and learn the material. The reason I say “newly” is that most people can find appropriate accommodations for learning disabilities, but it takes time and experimentation to discover what works best. You must learn the material for the education to fulfill it’s promises of a better life.
Third, choosing the most appropriate major and career goal is critical to actualizing the economic promises of a college education. Everyone has stronger aptitudes and weaker ones. As many as 2/3 of college students change majors. It is common for college students to select their classes according to what classes their friends are taking. Another mistake is to choose a major, simply because the student admires someone in that career field and would like to emulate that person. Many incorrectly assume that related careers require the same aptitudes. A career in organic chemistry takes a strong visual imagination, but a career in biochemistry does not. Industrial design requires a strong visual artistic aptitude but not much math aptitude, and industrial engineering requires a strong math aptitude, but not much of an artistic bent. Post-secondary educational costs are rising fast, so it is imperative that a student makes the best choice of major possible. Otherwise he may need to change majors or have great difficulty in a career the chosen major targets. Either eventuality wastes money and delays recovering the financial investment in his education.
Fourth, the sacrifices a student must make to get the college education matter a lot. The education may not bring him much happiness if it means letting his marriage go down the drain. His educational goal may not be worth the sacrifice of his health, or even his life. We don’t usually think of a college education as a high risk to health or life, but for people with specific health conditions it could be. It’s possible to get so obsessed with his studies that the student will delay getting a proper diagnosis or treatment, because of financial expense or because of time pressure.
It is more important than ever to carefully think-through all the decisions about going to college. The answer for you is an individual thing. If you do decide to go for it, start with realistic expectations, be adequately prepared, research the necessary factors in setting your goals and weigh the non-economic costs with the financial expense.