8 Unsettling Stats About Four-Year College Degrees

Are college degrees worth it? Soaring costs, student debt, skills gaps, changes in employer expectations, and evolving job markets challenge the traditional ROI of a four-year degree.

Key Takeaways

  • Cost & Debt: College tuition is soaring, leaving graduates with significant debt burdens.
  • Skills Gap: Employers prioritize skills over degrees, but many grads lack in-demand skills.
  • Alternative Credentials: Online courses, apprenticeships, and certifications are gaining traction.
  • Experience Matters: Work experience is highly valued by employers, regardless of educational background.
  • Unmudl's Solution: Unmudl offers affordable, skills-focused courses and connects learners with employers.
Are college degrees worth it? Soaring costs, student debt, skills gaps, changes in employer expectations, and evolving job markets challenge the traditional ROI of a four-year degree.

A four-year college degree has long been considered the golden ticket to a successful career. But is a traditional college degree still the best option for everyone?

If you’re wrestling with these questions, you’re not alone.

A Wall Street Journal-NORC poll found that 56% of Americans agree that a four-year college education is not worth the cost. This negative perception has been growing over the last decade. In 2013, a CNBC poll asked the identical question but only 40% responded negatively. 

This sentiment cuts across demographic lines too –– the Wall Street Journal reported that respondents in “all age groups as well as residents of cities and suburbs” were more likely to choose the negative response. 

The increased scrutiny faced by the traditional higher education model is due to rising costs, soaring student debt, changing expectations from employers, an uncertain job market, and more.  

But before you hit the brakes on your college plans, you need to know the facts. 

college graduate

Let’s dive into 8 highly revealing statistics that might challenge your assumptions about the necessity of a four-year degree. We’ll unpack the numbers and explore alternative paths to a fulfilling career.

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Click to learn more about Unmudl and Amazon Original Course

Unsettling Stats: Rethinking the College Degree

Understanding the recent research and data about the four-year college degree will help you make an informed decision about your education and career choices.

Here are 8 statistics you need to consider.

1. The Soaring Cost of College

Data from the past 20 years shows that the cost of attending college has risen drastically. Even after adjusting for inflation:

  • Tuition and fees at private National Universities have increased about 40%.
  • Out-of-state tuition and fees at public National Universities have risen about 38%.
  • In-state tuition and fees at public National Universities have grown by about 56%

Sallie Mae's ‘How America Pays for College’ study found that 78% of families eliminated a school from consideration based on cost. The highest priorities when choosing a college or university are not the degree itself –– students cited affordability (46%) and the scholarships or aid received (37%) instead. 

When you factor in housing, living expenses, textbooks, miscellaneous fees, and other costs, the price tag of a college education can leave graduates and their families burdened with student loan debt for decades.

However, it is important to note that there is a significant difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition as well as public and private university tuition.

2. The Debt-to-Income Squeeze

With college tuition and fees rising, student debt has reached unprecedented levels. As of September 2023, 43 million U.S. borrowers collectively owed more than $1.6 trillion in federal student loans. For perspective, total student loan debt exceeds debt from auto loans and credit cards

This debt burden has a significant impact on graduates' finances and life choices.

  • Average Debt: 20% of borrowers graduate with $10-20,00 in debt and 21% with $20,000 to $40,000. A small portion of borrowers, about 7%, hold an outsize share of the total student debt (38%). However, due to the nature of their degree, borrowers with high student debt can often pay it off more easily due to much higher future incomes.
  • Debt Per Borrower: Due to rising college tuition costs, the balance per borrower has risen by 39% from 2008 to 2022, according to U.S. News & World Report.
  • Repayment Difficulties: Approximately 6.8 million unique recipients have loans in default as of September 2023.

The consequences of this debt are far-reaching. 

With starting salaries in many fields not keeping pace with rising debt, millions of graduates struggle to repay loans. This further impacts their credit scores and life choices such as buying homes, starting families, and saving for retirement.

credit score sheet

3. The Skills Gap Paradox

​​The skills gap refers to the disparity between the skills employers need and the skills potential candidates have.

In 2023, Intelligent.com surveyed over a thousand business leaders to learn about their views on recent college graduates (classes 2020 to 2023). 40% of business leaders felt graduates were unprepared for the workforce, with a lack of communication skills being a top reason. 

At the same time, employers are increasingly prioritizing skills over degrees, leading to a growing emphasis on skills-based hiring. A TestGorilla report found that 70% of employers agree that skills-based hiring is more effective than resumes.

These statistics highlight a potential disconnect between traditional academic programs and the practical skills employers are seeking.

Why does this skills gap arise?

  • Traditional Degrees: These often prioritize theoretical knowledge and completion of a degree as primary indicators of readiness. While this demonstrates a foundational understanding, it might not directly translate to in-demand job skills.

  • Employer Needs: Employers are increasingly seeking candidates with both hard skills (technical proficiency specific to the position) and soft skills (communication, teamwork, adaptability, etc.).

  • Outdated Curricula: Degree programs, especially in fields like technology, can struggle to keep pace with industry changes. This creates a mismatch between what's taught and what's needed in the job market.

  • Narrow Focus: While degrees provide valuable depth in a subject area, they often don’t offer the cross-functional skills (e.g., project management, and data analysis) needed across various roles.

  • Lacking Experience: New graduates may find it challenging to apply theoretical concepts effectively without real-world experience. This makes it harder to demonstrate their full value to potential employers.

As a result of this gap, employers have increased their focus on skills-based hiring. A 2023 LinkedIn Economic Graph report found that more than 45% of hirers on LinkedIn explicitly used skills data to fill their roles, up 12% YoY. 

Platforms like Unmudl are dedicated to bridging this skills gap by addressing each of the above shortages in the existing educational model. 

This trend is likely to continue growing.

three employees having a discussion

4. The Job Market Isn't Degree-Obsessed (Everywhere)

A college degree is still a requirement for many professions, but a 2023 survey of 800 US employers, by Intelligent.com, found that 45% of companies plan to eliminate bachelor's degree requirements for some positions in 2024. 

The previously mentioned LinkedIn report also found that nearly one in five job postings in the US no longer require degrees, up from 15% in 2021. 

Both of these statistics suggest room for success in various fields through alternative pathways, such as job-focussed, online learning platforms like Unmudl.

If this wasn’t enough, the U.S. Department of Labor also notes that in 2022, about 7 out of 10 jobs were in occupations that don't require a 4-year degree for entry

They further cite industrial machinery mechanics as a field that is expected to grow considerably faster than average and that pays above the median.

5. The Rise of Alternative Credentials

There is a growing acceptance of alternative credentials that can equip learners with specific, in-demand skills

This can be especially important in light of existing skills and workforce gaps. The 2021 Alternative Education Pathways Report found that 81% of business leaders and 55% of the general public agreed that alternative education pathways will play a pivotal role in future workforce training.

An SHRM study found that 87% of executives, 81% of supervisors, and 90% of HR professionals believe that people with alternative credentials bring value to the workplace.

Employers also appreciate applied experiences, with the following making employers “much more likely to consider” hiring a candidate:

  • An internship or apprenticeship (49%)
  • Experience that involved working in community settings with people from diverse backgrounds or cultures (47%)
  • Experience that involved working with mentors and/or individualized advisors (43%)
  • Multiple courses requiring significant writing assignments (42%) 

Alternative credentials can include:

  • Online courses with hands-on practice.
  • Work under the observation of industry professionals who can certify that you have acquired the skill in question. 
  • Apprenticeships that allow you to learn skills and prove your ability to execute specific tasks.

Additionally, industry bodies issue professional certifications in nearly every imaginable field, making it possible to find qualifications outside of a bachelor’s degree.

a girl working with headphones on

6. The Value of Experience

Along with the rise of skills-based hiring and alternative credentials, experience has been and still is seen as a primary factor in employment.

In a 2024 report by recruitment firm Hays, 45% of employers said that having a degree is “not important”. Similarly, Intelligent.com found that 4 in 5 employers value experience over education when evaluating job candidates.

This highlights the primacy of work experiences which build practical, relevant skills and a strong portfolio, regardless of educational background.

7. The ROI Question Mark

With the rising cost of college and stagnant wages in many fields, the conventionally expected return on investment (ROI) of a four-year degree has come into question.

  • College Wage Premium: While four-year degree holders still earn more on average than those without a degree, the wage premium has shrunk over time. Research from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco shows that this wage premium “has been flat to down in recent years and declined notably since the pandemic”.
  • Underemployment: According to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, about 41% of recent college graduates and and 33.8 percent of all college graduates are underemployed – working in jobs that do not require a college degree.
  • Career Switches: In a survey by BestColleges found, 61% of respondents said they would change their undergraduate studies if they could go back, suggesting a mismatch between education and career aspirations.

Unmudl courses, made in collaboration with employers, can offer a quicker and potentially more affordable route to job-ready skills.

8. Mental Health Impacts of College Stress

The stress of college costs, student debt, and uncertain job prospects significantly impact students' mental health.

Unmudl: Your Partner in Career Navigation

These unsettling statistics paint a sobering picture of the challenges and realities of pursuing a four-year college degree. 

As the traditional higher education model becomes increasingly inaccessible and uncertain, alternative pathways like Unmudl provide practical and affordable solutions.

  • Skills-Focused Learning: Our courses are designed to equip you with the specific in-demand skills. We focus on practical applications and real-world scenarios to ensure you're job-ready upon completion.

  • Flexible Learning Options: Unmudl understands that busy schedules can't always accommodate traditional classroom settings. We offer a variety of online and self-paced courses that allow you to learn at your own convenience.

  • Expert Instructors: Our instructors are industry professionals with years of experience in their respective fields. They bring valuable insights and practical knowledge to the classroom, ensuring you learn from the best.

  • Skills-to-Jobs Marketplace: Our platform connects learners directly with employers seeking skilled professionals. You can showcase your newly acquired skills to potential employers and explore job opportunities relevant to your newfound expertise.

The decision to pursue a four-year degree is a personal one. But regardless of your chosen path, Unmudl can be your partner in navigating the ever-changing world of work. 

Here's how we can help:

  • Gap Fillers: Whether you're a recent graduate lacking specific skills or a seasoned professional seeking to upskill, Unmudl can help you bridge the gap between your qualifications and your career goals.

  • Career Changers: Thinking about a career change but unsure where to start? Unmudl offers courses and resources to help you identify your transferable skills and explore new career paths that align with your interests and aspirations.

  • Lifelong Learners: The world of work is constantly evolving. Unmudl provides a platform for continuous learning, allowing you to stay ahead of the curve and acquire new skills throughout your career journey.

By focusing on industry-aligned training and certifications, Unmudl helps you gain the expertise you need to thrive in today’s job market without the financial burden of a four-year degree.

Ready to take control of your career destiny?

Explore Unmudl's course library today or start a free trial today and discover how we can help you achieve your career goals!

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Click to learn more about Unmudl and Amazon Original Course
Click to learn more about Unmudl and Amazon Original Course
Last updated on:
May 20, 2024

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