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Earning a college degree is a sizable investment. For the last century, tuition rates at universities have risen annually by around two to three percent, which is higher than the rate of inflation and growth of median income. According to the College Board, average published tuition costs are now $9,139 at public in-state colleges, $22,958 at public out-of-state colleges, $31,231 at private non-profit universities, and $15,230 at for-profit private universities. That’s why it’s so essential for incoming students to do their homework on a college’s value before enrolling. Overstepping your financial means can lead you towards higher education’s biggest concern – debt. After all, CNN found that American student loan debt reached the staggering milestone of $1.2 trillion in 2015.

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When the term “value” is used, your mind most likely focuses in on tuition. However, finding value in a college education depends on more than just the dollar signs. One of the most popular ways to find the value of a degree or university is to calculate its return on investment (ROI). This involves comparing the cost of the education with students’ future salary potential and job prospects after graduation. Simply choosing the cheapest degree you can find may not translate into a successful career if there are few jobs available. Similarly, investing in an expensive degree may be worth it when you graduate with lucrative job offers waiting. Low price tags aren’t always indicators of value, so look for programs with good hands-on learning, faculty interaction, financial aid options, accreditation, and career placement rates.

How much your college education will cost can vary drastically depending on the type of degree, your chosen university, and your mode of learning. Students now have the freedom to earn their degree either on-campus, online, or in a hybrid blend of the two. Attending a traditional brick-and-mortar program can facilitate increased peer interaction, lead to added work-study funding opportunities, and cut down on technology fees. On the flip side, online degrees can be valuable for reducing supplemental costs like transportation, room and board, childcare, and textbooks. Many online programs charge the same tuition rate for students regardless of their state of residence, which may add some savings. Choosing an online or hybrid degree can also be beneficial for full-time working professionals looking to keep their paycheck while learning.

Degree Levels

Students who are continuing their education beyond secondary school have four main degrees to choose from based on their prior education. Colleges award degrees at the associate, baccalaureate, master, and doctorate levels, which can take anywhere from two to ten years to complete. With today’s rising tuition prices, it’s important that you select the right degree level to avoid overspending or lessening the value of your education. For instance, if you’re studying to become a clinical psychologist, a doctoral degree must be in your future. But, if you wish to work as a paralegal or financial analyst, a bachelor’s degree will usually be adequate. Pick a degree level that best aligns with your future career aspirations to reap the best value.

Associate’s Degrees

An Associate of Arts (A.A.), Associate of Science (A.S.), or Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) program will take two years of studying at a community college or vocational school. Associate’s degrees are designed to give students a general education with specialized career training to unlock entry-level job prospects. Associate’s degrees can sometimes cost up to $80,000 less than bachelor’s programs due to their lower tuition and shorter span of time. An associate’s degree can be valuable in several high-paying technical fields too. For instance, a two-year degree can be sufficient for working as a computer tech specialist, dental hygienist, nuclear technician, radiation therapist, diagnostic medical sonographer, and fashion designer.

Further Reading: Online Associate Degree Programs: Top 10 2016

Bachelor’s Degrees

At four-year colleges and universities, students typically have the option to obtain a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Bachelor of Science (B.S.), or Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) in their chosen area of specialization. Bachelor’s degrees are structured to give students a general education before building on those skills with introductory career preparation. Graduates with a bachelor’s degree are usually equipped for taking on entry-level to mid-level positions with eventual promotion into management with time. Earning a bachelor’s degree is a smart investment because workers at this degree level make salaries 75% higher than high school graduates. In fact, CNN Money found that bachelor’s degree holders earn $1 million more over their lifetimes.

Further Reading: Top 10 Best Accredited Online Colleges

Master’s Degrees

A student with a bachelor’s degree who seeks to further her education can return to graduate school to achieve a Master of Arts (M.A.), Master of Science (M.S.), or other specialized master’s degree. Over the course of one to three years, master’s programs will push students to obtain more advanced knowledge in their specialty area for management-level job positions with leadership responsibility. Master’s degrees are a good investment for greater employment flexibility, professional growth, better credibility, and a sense of accomplishment. They’re also financially rewarding with a 30% increase in average annual salary over the undergraduate level. According to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, master’s degrees worth the debt are in engineering, accounting, mathematics, human resources, business, economics, and computer science.

Further Reading: Top 10 Cheapest Online Master’s Degree Programs

Doctoral Degrees

Doctoral degrees are terminal graduate research-oriented or professional programs that offer the highest level of academic training in a given field. Requiring 60 to 120 credits beyond the baccalaureate degree, doctorates can take many different shapes, such as the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.), Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), Medical Doctor (M.D.), Juris Doctor (J.D.), and more. Investing in a doctoral degree doesn’t guarantee big bucks, but graduates earn a median weekly salary that’s 52% greater than bachelor’s degree holders. Many choose to obtain a doctorate to teach in post-secondary education, which can be smart because employment of professors is set to grow faster than average by 19%.

Further reading: Doctorate Degree Online: 5 Best Values 2016

Selecting a college degree level that won’t set you up for a job lucrative enough to pay back borrowed loans with interest can spell trouble. Yet, a big paycheck won’t look as good when you’re strapped for cash with large loan debt payments. When choosing among the degree levels, it’s essential you look at your potential earnings, average net price, and ability to repay the debts incurred. Carefully examine the payoff a degree typically garners in your field before investing. Look through the salary listings gathered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to discover your income potential, but don’t assume you’ll automatically land in the top half of earnings. It’s recommended that you never choose a degree that costs more than your future yearly salary.

The Importance of Rankings

Finding the best value in higher education can be a difficult task alone. Devoting hours to research important factors like loan default, graduation, and job placement rates can be exhausting in your busy life. Luckily, college rankings are published online by several authoritative organizations to help point out stellar universities giving students a good value for their buck. Due to the plethora of higher learning options, a survey by Art & Science Group found that two-thirds of students take college rankings into consideration when selecting their school. Rankings give students insight into whether their investment will be profitable by showing how one school stacks up against others. Rankings don’t mean everything, but they hold some valuable statistics that could play a part in whether your career sinks or swims.

Now, where can you find these rankings? In addition to on our website, there are numerous options available across the World Wide Web. The U.S. News and World Report is perhaps the most popular with its list of “Best Value Schools,” which ranks the best national, liberal arts, and regional universities based on academic quality and average need-based financial aid. Forbes magazine publishes a ranking for “America’s Best Value Colleges” by dividing schools’ quality scores by in-state tuition fees. Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine is another popular choice for ranking the nation’s 100 “Top Values” in higher education and compiling plenty of useful data. The prestigious Princeton Review also has created the “Colleges That Pay You Back” ranking to show the top 200 colleges in America that ensure dream careers post-graduation.

College rankings won’t incorporate every bit of data that’s significant to your decision-making process, so it’s critical that you pick what’s most important first. For instance, quality academics might be at the top of your list and cosmetic factors like campus architecture may be meaningless to you. If you’re looking for a great value, make certain that your top factors include alumni success rates, financial aid, graduation rates, and likelihood of loan default. Then, you’ll be able to find the college rankings that evaluate the information you’re looking for most. Make certain you also make campus visits because choosing a valuable college will be pointless if you’re miserable. It takes some effort to find the perfect fit, but it’ll be worth it.

Career Benefits of a College Education

Even in today’s unsettling job market, a college degree is worth the time, stress, and cost spent to earn it. One of the most obvious career benefits of higher education is a salary potential increase. If you put in the investment for a college degree, you’re likely to earn more than your peers who don’t. Area of study can impact the ROI, but degree holders have reaped average returns of about 15% over the past decade. College graduates are also more likely to find job opportunities with better insurance coverage, retirement planning, and tuition reimbursement than high school graduates. In some cases, benefits packages alone can be worth as much as an employee’s salary, thus boosting the monetary rewards.

Obtaining a college degree at any level will certify that you have the knowledge, skills, and attributes needed to handle higher learning. You’ll prove that you have the discipline to complete a task from start to finish. That’s why degrees open many career doors that would otherwise remain locked. Employers prefer college graduates when looking for new hires, so a degree will prove valuable in increasing marketability. Enrolling in college also gives you access to internships to get your feet wet in a career and build the invaluable technical skills needed. Plus, college students join a large community of experienced faculty who can mentor them and connect them with networking opportunities inaccessible to others.

Other notable career benefits may not appear as readily, but they’re still important. Workers with at least a bachelor’s degree are 56% more likely to engage in continuing education and follow lifelong learning for advancement. College graduates are usually able to find more stimulating jobs in their chosen area of expertise, which leads to a higher average job satisfaction rate. Individuals who have finished a college education have an increased likelihood of engaging in their communities, taking on leadership roles, leading healthy, active lifestyles, and donating their time to community service. Earning a degree raises graduates’ chances of moving up the socioeconomic ladder and passing that ripple effect on to their children. In fact, an interesting study from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation even found that infant mortality rates are much lower for college-educated women too.

Overall, it’s clear that the benefits of reaching your post-secondary education goals far outweigh the costs of tuition. Yet, you’ll still need to make wise financial decisions to garner the highest payoff from your investment and avoid falling behind with debt. We now invite you to start strolling through the resources highlighted in our website. It’s our mission to help students like you find value in your college education by selecting the best program for your academic interests, career choice, and bank account. If you have any further questions or would like to suggest new content, feel free to contact us here.