Another year of college is about to begin. If you've chosen not to attend, the panic may be starting to set in as you watch your friends get ready for the experience and wonder if you've made the right choice. College is expensive, though, and in today's economy, it makes sense to question the idea that enrolling is a universally good idea. (To help you with the increase cost of school, read 5 Ways To Combat Rising College Costs.)



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Cliché No. 1: You shouldn't take time off between high school and college.
While 68.1% of students went straight from high school to college in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that leaves 31.9% who didn't. Of students who did not go straight to college, 33.4% found themselves unemployed several times the national average unemployment rate. This rate contrasts greatly with the unemployment rate of college grads, which is only slightly higher than the national average.

Parents' fears that their children will become bums if they don't head to college apparently have some basis in fact. However, unemployment doesn't mean that these young adults are just wasting time. The Gap Year Advantage: Helping Your Child Benefit from Time Off Before or During College by Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson advises, "a gap-year plan may make the difference between graduating successfully from college with a strategy for life beyond and floating uncertainly on a path of young adulthood that may be accompanied by significant financial and emotional costs."

You shouldn't take a year off if you're going to spend it watching television. But students who haven't yet figured out what kind of career they might want can benefit from exploring what the real world has to offer before starting to pay tuition.

Cliché No. 2: If you quit now, you'll never go back to school later.
Once you have adult responsibilities, attending school full time may cease to be an option. However, it's easier than ever to continue your education now that so many schools, even top-notch ones, offer online and evening programs.

Whether it's taking time off before you start college, during your undergraduate years or not going straight from undergrad to grad school, don't be afraid to take a break to get your priorities straight. Contrary to what you or your parents may fear, you won't ruin your life if you don't complete college in a straight, four-year shot.

It's true that college graduates often have more career options and better earning potential. However, spending tens of thousands of dollars or racking up tens of thousands of dollars in debt when you don't know what you're doing can put you in a financial situation that will limit your options for years, even decades. Just ask the former students who have loan payments as large as house payments. (For more motivation on returning to school, see 7 Reasons To Go Back To School Now.)

Cliché No. 3: Your college coursework will prepare you for your career.
A degree may get you through a company's door, but will you know what to do once you're there? You'll need numerous skills to succeed professionally, but unless you major in business, you won't learn most of them until you start working. In college, you often don't learn about the importance of appearance or how to brand and market yourself. You don't learn how to negotiate, how to manage people or how to give a compelling presentation. College classes often focus on theory rather than real-life, concrete skills. Also, it's tempting to major in a subject because it interests you, even if you have no desire to work in that field. College coursework may require you to develop your self-discipline and critical thinking abilities, but college isn't the only place you can acquire those skills.

What's more, college graduates can end up in jobs that don't even require a college degree, especially during a recession. A 2010 study by economists Andrew Sum and Paul Harrington of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University found that from January to August of that year, "fewer than 50 of every 100 young B.A. holders held a job requiring a college degree." Such graduates were earning 30% to 40% less than their better-employed peers.

However, Sum and Harrington noted that college graduates who had majored in engineering, health, business and computer science were more likely to get a job that required a college degree. If you want your college coursework to prepare you for your career, you have to choose your credit hours carefully.

Cliché No. 4: A master's degree is the new bachelor's degree.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau's Educational Attainment in the United States data, in 1980, 17% of adults 25 years and older held at least a bachelor's degree and 7.1% had completed five years or more of college. In 2010, 30% of adults 25 and older held at least a bachelor's degree and 11% held an advanced degree.

Some people think that attaining an undergraduate degree is no longer good enough. However, graduate degree holders still make up a relatively small percentage of the population - smaller than the percentage that held undergraduate degrees a generation ago. A master's degree is not the new bachelor's degree; it's not a basic requirement to get in the door in most professions. It remains a distinguishing accomplishment that can help you get ahead.

How much further ahead will a master's degree get you? A report called "The College Payoff," released August 5, 2011 by the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce points out that the connection between higher education and lifetime earnings isn't clear cut. It says, "Degree level matters," but "Occupational choice can trump degree level;" however, "degree level still matters most within individual occupations."

The study found that, on average, over a lifetime, a high school graduate will earn $1.3 million, a college graduate will earn $2.3 million and a master's degree holder will earn $2.7 million. It would appear that the opportunity to earn an extra $400,000 over a lifetime in exchange for even Harvard's graduate school tuition and fees of $39,324 per year in 2011 would pay off. But the real differences lie in completing college versus completing high school, and in acquiring a terminal degree versus a lower-level degree. Doctoral degree holders earn an average of $3.3 million over a lifetime, while professional degree holders earn an average of $3.6 million.

Every Opportunity Has its Cost
Attaining a higher education has an opportunity cost. The money spent could be invested in stocks, and the years spent studying could be spent working. Someone who skipped college in favor of a shorter program with good salary prospects could easily fare better than someone who went to college for six years and ended up with a master's in a low-paying field like social work. Whether a college degree will lead to a successful career or higher lifetime earnings has more to do with individual choices than anything else. (To learn more about the benefits of both education and experience, check out Experience Or Education: Which One Lands You The Job?)

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