Student Loans, Scholarships, Grants and Awards: Is College Worth It?

Stephanie Olsen
May 4, 2021

It’s not news that college is expensive. Back in 2006, it was already a problem, with Cornell researchers writing that 1980 tuition took 25% of a family’s income. By 2004, it had more than doubled to 56%. This begs to answer the question: is college worth it?   There are lots of reasons for the staggering increases and cost of college tuition today, they explain. Just some of these reasons include:
  • Unlike businesses, schools can’t really scale. Colleges can’t produce more graduates by instituting efficiencies. Without physically expanding, student numbers stay relatively the same.
  • More postgraduate education is offered today than in past decades. This is more expensive than teaching undergrads.
  • Faculty salaries and professor to student ratios cost a lot.
  • Student expectations regarding facilities cost a lot.
  • Less research support from the government.
  • It costs to maintain a school’s ranking, which is necessary to keep it attracting new students.
  Most families have to save and incur debt to pay for their children’s college education. Those students, meanwhile, tend to pitch in with part-time jobs and apply for scholarships, grants and financial aid. Usually, tuition is paid with a mix of saved money, free money and student loans.   More >> Scholarship applications require a lot of work but pay big rewards. Here's a scholarship application checklist that wins you free money for college  

So, is college worth the money? 

College Board researchers crunched the numbers and came up with a decisive “yes.” Graduates of four-year degree programs earned 67% more in 2015 than workers who only completed high school. The college grads paid 91% more in taxes and took home 61% more after-tax.   That means the return on investment goes further than earning a better salary for the graduate. It helps everyone.   “College education is associated with healthier lifestyles, reducing health care costs,” they write. “Adults with higher levels of education are more active citizens than others and are more involved in their children’s activities.”   In addition to paying more taxes, college grads exercise more, volunteer more and vote more. All of this benefits them, of course, but also their immediate communities and society at large.   In fact, most Americans agree that college education is worth it - as long as it means not taking on too much debt.  

Why college isn't worth it

There are a few instances in which a college degree is not worth it, and as anything in life, this is situational. Here are some common reasons why college might not be worth it:  

The job you want doesn't require a degree

Not all jobs require you to have a degree. A lot of manual labor work doesn't require a degree but rather that you go through a certification process. Trade schools, community colleges, apprenticeships, and entrepreneurial adventures don't require a degree to start and they tend to be easier to access than a four-year institution might be.   Explore your options when it comes to the career you want to pursue before you get a degree and/or incur debt you don't need.  

The degree you want doesn't pay well enough to pay it off

While it is important to do something you're passionate about, there might be some instances where you should give this decision a second thought. Some degrees can cost upwards of $100,000 and will never pay more than $30,000 a year, which would mean you would be paying back your student loan debt for many years to come.   We at College Life Today think you should love your job, but we don't want you to have to live paycheck to paycheck for the rest of your life after putting in all that work.  

You don't plan on graduating

As much as we hope this doesn't happen after going through all the effort to get into college, we get that some people think college might be for them but then quickly realize it's not. Things happen and degrees often get put on the backburner.   If you think there's a possibility that you might not finish your degree, you should wait until you are confident. If you don't graduate your loans will not get deferred and you will be in debt with nothing to show for it except some miscellaneous credits for classes that might never come in handy.   Photo by Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels

You’ve decided it’s worth it: You’re going to college!

Once you’ve decided college is your path to the future, you need to figure out how you can finance your education without going into crippling debt.   That means you’ll need to have some savings to draw on, plan on working part-time and obtain financial aid. The proviso here is to fund as much of your schooling as possible with “free money” - money you don’t have to pay back, like grants and scholarships.  

How to pay for college

The first place to look for free college money is to research scholarships and grants. They range wildly in amounts and the process might be tedious, but the benefit is obvious. Apply to as many as you can find that are applicable to your situations, and remember to make note of the deadlines.  

Scholarships and grants resources

  • Scholarship Search - Anthony ONeal, author of “The Graduate Survival Guide,” created this resource that allows you to search more than 10,000 scholarships and grants. He also has scholarship giveaways you can participate in.
  • Scholarship America - Search scholarships by availability (now or for the next academic year) or by state.
  • Moolah Spot - Here you can find scholarships, grants, and contests. The site itself offers a $1,000 scholarship for students from any country who are over 16. The recipient is awarded based on their 400 word essay, with no other criteria considered, such as family incomes, grades, or test scores.
  • Big Future - You can search here for scholarships, other financial aid, and internships from more than 2,200 programs.
  • Questbridge National College Match - This national nonprofit helps low-income high school seniors gain admission to top universities and full four-year scholarships. Students who have excelled academically should apply.
  • Chegg Scholarships - This database has over 25,000 scholarships for you to browse and select from.
  • Peterson’s - Here’s another enormous search engine, with 1.9+ million scholarships, grants, and fellowships; 4,000+ scholarship providers; and $10+ billion available in scholarship awards.
  • Scholarship Monkey - At this site, you can create a profile for a personalized search, or search by keywords. You can also browse by your major or sport and by state.
  • Unigo - In addition to their own contests and sweepstakes, Unigo has a directory filled with “fun, unusual, academic, need-based, student-specific, career, and even more types of scholarships.”
  • U.S. Department of Labor’s Career One Stop - This is a great resource with more than 8,000 scholarships, fellowships, grants, and other financial aid award opportunities.
  • Scholarships and Grants - Here you can browse by state, subject, or even type of learner (adult learners, veterans, and graduates, for example).

Financial aid

The best financial aid for students is the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid. Create your FSA ID here; and go to this page for information on the federal Pell grant.   You can also use the FAFSA Form to apply for financial aid.   Look into the Federal Work-Study Program while you're at it. These programs provide part-time jobs for students, and are granted based on your financial need. While you’re filling out the FAFSA, look for and check the applicable box to be considered for work-study eligibility.   Photo by Gustavo Fring via Pexels

Federal and private student loans

Consider federal and private student loans when you have a gap between the amount you have to pay for college and the amount you have in savings, scholarships and other awards.   Federal loans are of course issued by the government, whereas private loans are made by a lender, typically a bank or credit union. Remember that federal loans are capped with an annual limit, but don’t require a credit check   When applying for a loan, look for the best terms possible. These include a very low fixed interest rate (instead of variable that may increase) and income-driven repayment plans.   If you can, avoid loans that require a cosigner and that garnish your wages in the event of default or that penalize you if you make early lump sum payments. Compare terms, fees, and interest rates offered by several lenders before you make your decision.