There’s a reason your parents were able to work their way through college and graduate without debt – since 1978, the cost of a college degree has risen 1,120%. Yes, 1,120%. Total student debt has risen to more than $1.5 trillion. Because of this, one might wonder if college is really worth it.

If you have a degree in computer science, Silicon Valley will pay up to six figures per year. Surgeons rake in an average of $358,000. Compare those two professions with the average American salary, and it's clear that the right higher education pays off big time. However, there are low-paying, stressful professions, in many cases endangered by advancements in technology. Here are some examples.

Key Takeaways

  • Student debt continues to spike, with many recent and not-so-recent college graduates struggling to advance in careers as they pay off debt.
  • For graduates working in higher-paying professions like finance and technology, paying off student debt is a reasonable goal.
  • But for people in low-paying fields, paying off student debt can seem insurmountable, particularly as interest and fees increase over time.
  • Of jobs that typically require a four-year college degree, people who educate or work in social services are the lowest-paid around; the list includes ministers, journalists, social workers, and teachers.

1. Minister

Aside from writing and presenting the weekly sermon, ministers are considered the final word on morality, and they’re called on constantly to provide counseling on spiritual health, marriage, and religious issues, and to give comfort in times of disaster. All that comes with stress, according to 75% of those polled. To get into the business, you need a bachelor’s or better, and prior experience. The median salary is $48,490, though mega-church pastors rake in considerably more.

2. Journalist

The Internet is killing the printing press. The Great Recession didn’t help. Some magazines and newspapers are surviving online, and the lucky few journalists with jobs make around $43,640 a year. The unlucky ones are being pushed out by bloggers willing to report for the byline. Some 13% are freelancers, who receive few if any benefits. Combine the deadlines with job insecurity, and 62% say the job is stressful. And still, the gateway is a bachelor’s in journalism or communications, with a master's preferred.

$1.5 trillion

The amount of outstanding total student debt, as of 2020.

3. Social Work and Counseling

Social workers are the unappreciated heroes of society. Name the lower rung of society – think of your tired, your poor, your hungry, your physically and emotionally abused and disabled – and social workers are there trying to help them keep their grip on the ladder. The median income for a rehab counselor is $34,490. And most states require that rehabilitation counselors have a master’s degree and a state license, pass an annual written exam, and take continuing education courses. Social workers must have advanced degrees and pass licensing requirements, all to earn a median salary of $45,900 – median meaning, you'll recall, that 50% earn below this figure. Why do 72% of them say the occupation is stressful?

4. Teacher

High school teachers – talk about a professional disappearing act: Since 2010, education programs in California, New York, and Texas have seen an enrollment decline of around 50%. Why would anyone want to give up the chance to inspire young minds? Could it be bills that would allow money from low-income schools to be directed away to wealthier schools? How about the teachers' union-busting in certain states? Or the fact that states like Kansas have cut $44.5 million from the education budget and have proposed reducing contributions to teacher pensions to make up for shortfalls due to tax cuts? Maybe it's the frustration of trying to teach unruly teenage students sick of algebra and history while dealing with helicopter parents wondering why their kids aren’t learning algebra and history. All this for a median salary of $58,030. But it beats social work – only 65% of teachers polled said the job is stressful.

Honorable Mention: Legislator

In our democracy, elected officials work long hours for low pay to ensure that the system is fair for everyone, rich and poor alike, no matter their race, creed, or color. Legislators – also called politicians – tend to be charismatic. And you can’t teach charisma. That’s why a college education isn’t required – not even courses in economics, history, and science. Still, many on the national level have a bachelor’s, some even have a JD. On average, the salary isn’t great: $25,630, but the spread is broad: In New Hampshire, for instance, legislators take in just $100 per annum, which means working a second job they can live on, while U.S. Congress members pull in $174,000.

The Bottom Line

Yes, some jobs have it all: tension, frustration, poor pay and years of additional education. Why take on debt to prepare yourself for fields with such prospects? Simply put, it’s not all about the money. Ministers, journalists, social workers, teachers – most of them are answering a higher calling and get psychic rewards from their work. Even politicians, maybe. Those who argue against using public funds to enable more kids to go to college – like some conservative politicians – will rarely have a problem sending their kids to college. Despite the high cost, not going costs more – about $500,000 more, over a working lifetime. Looked at from that perspective: college is cheaper than free.