Is College Still “Worth It” After COVID-19? Yes! More Than Ever

The COVID-19 crisis has hit colleges and universities hard. This past spring, campuses sent students home early, canceled graduation ceremonies, and shifted to online learning. This fall, 4-year colleges might lose 20% of their student enrollment, as many families question whether they want their children to go back to campus during a pandemic. Minority students are experiencing even tougher situations as 41% of minority high school seniors say that they might not go to college in fall 2020 and 33% of undecided minority students have changed their top choice of college because of COVID-19.

Although COVID-19 has changed so much in everyday life and the economy, it has not changed the value of a college degree. In fact, if you look at the overall situation in the job market, even at a moment of sky-high unemployment, having a college degree is still paying off.

We believe that the post-COVID world will have even bigger rewards for college graduates. And we believe that in this time of crisis, it’s still a good time for students to work toward finishing their college degrees.

Here are a few big reasons why college is still worth it during COVID-19 - and beyond:

People With Bachelor’s Degrees Agree: College is Worth It

When people ask if college is still worth it, they never seem to ask people who are benefiting from having a degree. However, a recent Federal Reserve survey found that 70% of Americans who have a Bachelor’s degree or higher believed that “their educational investment paid off financially.” Only 30% of people who had some college, but did not complete a degree, felt the same way.

This survey shows what we have seen from lots of other data and conversations with students and families over the years: college is worth it, if you finish your degree. People who finish their 4-year degree are more likely to get better jobs, better lifetime earnings, and have more comfortable lives.

The lesson? Stay in school, finish your degree, and get the life opportunities that you deserve.

College Degrees Can Help Make You Crisis-Proof

39 million Americans have lost their jobs because of the COVID-19 crisis. This is an astronomical unemployment situation. We have not seen anything like this since the Great Depression.

But if you look at the numbers, college graduates are doing better than those without degrees. Even during a historic unemployment crisis, college graduates are still much more likely to have jobs:

Fred stats

According to research from the Federal Reserve, as of April 2020, people age 25 and older with a Bachelor’s degree and higher had an unemployment rate of 8.2%. Within the same age group, people with only a high school diploma were still 2 times more likely to be unemployed.

This means: even during one of the worst economic crises in U.S. history, people with a college degree are much more likely to keep their jobs. During the Great Recession of 2008-2009, college grads had a much lower rate of unemployment: 5.0% at its highest point, compared to 11.0% for high school graduates.

Those with less education were disproportionately harmed by the Great Recession. Graduate degree holders, and to a lesser extent those with a bachelor’s degree, experienced smaller reductions in employment during the recession. For those with no postsecondary degree, the employment rate gap in 2011 was 5% or more, while it was just 2% for those with a bachelor’s degree.

demo adjusted emp rate

The career advantages of a college degree are even more important for Black people, whose jobs have been hit hard by the coronavirus crisis. As of May 2020, Black people had an unemployment rate of 16.8%, compared to 12.4% for white people. But before the pandemic, Black people with college degrees had almost the same unemployment rate as white college grads.

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, as of 2019 (the most recent data available), Black people with only a high school diploma had an unemployment rate of 6.2%, compared to 3.2% for white high school graduates. But for college-educated people, the gap between Black and white unemployment rates almost disappears: as of 2019, Black people with a 4-year degree had an unemployment rate of only 3.1%, compared to 2.1% for white people with 4-year degrees.

Black workers experience higher unemployment

The federal government has not collected data on this yet for 2020, but there’s good reason to believe that college degrees will continue to be an equalizer of opportunity for people from lower-income families and underrepresented groups.

College Grads Are More Likely to Work From Home

During COVID-19, some of the worst unemployment has happened to people whose jobs cannot be done online while working from home. The best, safest jobs of the future are more likely to be knowledge-economy jobs, jobs where you can work from home, jobs where you can work from anywhere - and many of these jobs require a college degree.

Figure 40

According to this Federal Reserve survey, as of April 4, 2020, 63% of people with a Bachelor’s degree or higher did “all” of their work remotely that week. This was a much higher percentage than people with some college but no 4-year degree; only 27% of that group was doing all of their work remotely.

The lesson: having a college degree can help you get into jobs that are more likely to be recession-proof, or even “pandemic-proof.” When the 2008 recession hit, according to a long-running annual survey of college freshmen, the No. 1 reason students went to college was to secure a better job; before that, it was to learn something that interested them. As a result, students began choosing more “practical” majors. During this crisis, majors may be defined more by those that allow remote work.

Working from home will be more prevalent in the future than it has ever been before. While no job can ever grant you complete security, a college degree is the best way to secure a job that may be recession-proof and pandemic-proof.

Dropping Out Does Not Make it Better

Some students are considering dropping out of college because of coronavirus. Even though an overwhelming majority of students agree with public health officials that canceling in-person classes is an important part of social distancing and containing the virus, it does not mean they are prepared to invest the same amount of time and money on a changed educational experience.

It can be overwhelming to consider staying in school when the style of teaching has gone online. Or your economic situation has changed so much that you think you cannot afford it. But even if you think college is not worth it, it is. Talk to your financial aid office and find out your options. As this New York Times article points out, taking out a student loan is better than dropping out. In fact, students who borrowed more wound up defaulting less. This was most likely because the loans allowed students to earn their degrees, which led to more stable careers and stronger financial futures.

Taking a Gap Year Can Leave a Big Gap in Your Career

Right now, some students are considering taking a year off of college, known as a “gap year.” During “normal” times, taking a gap year can be a good thing, as long as you are able to make good use of that time away from campus.

For example, if you can use that year off to get some great job experience, or volunteer in your career field, or travel and learn about the world, or get a better perspective about why you want to be in college, taking a gap year can help your education and career.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 is not a great time for taking a gap year, especially for students from low income families. If you do not have a good job lined up, if you don’t have a valuable internship or volunteer experience that you can do, if you’re not going to come out of the gap year in a better position to succeed in your studies, then you should not take a gap year.

Instead of a gap year, go to college. This year of low enrollments and high uncertainty might actually be a perfect chance for students like you to make progress toward your degree.

There are colleges now offering lower tuition, better financial aid, or more generous admissions standards. You might be able to get accepted to a more selective college than you could before. You might be able to get a better financial aid package. Colleges are often grateful to have students coming back for fall 2020. Take advantage of this moment.

Want to protect yourself from the next crisis? Want to get connected to better opportunities throughout your life? Stay in school. Get a college degree. Now more than ever, it’s worth it.

Bottom line: College is still worth it. Especially for high achieving students from low income families, and most importantly, if they finish their degrees.