Is college worth it?

Iowa College Aid’s mission is to advocate for and support Iowans as they explore, finance, and complete educational opportunities beyond high school to increase family and community success. We are asked similar questions from Iowa students and families about going to college, paying for college, and if it's all worthwhile. We’ve compiled some frequently asked questions and our answers.

Q: What counts as “going to college”?

A: Most people think of college as the residential experience of living in dorms and attending class on-campus while earning credits towards a bachelor's degree. In the modern era, that is nowhere near the truth. College is any education beyond high school and includes registered apprenticeships, certificates, diplomas, associate degrees, along with bachelor's degrees and advanced degrees. Learn more about the types of colleges and degrees at

Q: Is it worth going to college if I have to take out student loans?

A: Oftentimes, going to college requires less money and loans than students think. Published rates for tuition, fees, and room and board do not include average financial aid and grants that students receive. The listed rates do not accurately reflect what students actually end up paying. College Scorecard shows the average net-price (calculated by adding the cost of tuition, fees, and room/board and subtracting the average student's scholarships and grants) by a student’s family income. Search the school you’re interested in, scroll down and click costs. There you will find the average cost of attending the institution for an average student in each income bracket AFTER accounting for scholarships and grants.

Secondly, as a person increases their education, they have greater average wages and are less likely to be unemployed (see table below).

Education Level Average Wage Unemployment
Less than HS 30,381 6.80%
High School or GED 33,066 4.26%
Some College or AA 39,073 3.11%
Bachelors Degree 51,751 1.48%
Graduate or Professional Degree 66,887 1.48%
Wage values are from the U.S. Census' American Community Surveys 2020's estimates for Iowa. Unemployment values are from the CDC's BRFSS Prevalence and Trends Data.








Finally, evidence suggests a high return on investment in higher education. The graph below displays cumulative full-time earnings, accounting for both forgone earnings and student loan payments over a 10-year period. Iowans who enroll at age 18 and graduate from a four-year or two-year institution can expect their cumulative earnings to surpass a high school graduate’s cumulative earnings by their early 30’s.


Q: Are there other benefits of going to college, besides money?

A: Having an education past high school has a variety of benefits. People with a college education are more likely to vote and volunteer,1 report higher levels of happiness,2 have increased tolerance of diverging political opinions and views,3 and remain married.4 Increased levels of education have protective effects on mortality, obesity, and smoking5 and decreases the likelihood of the onset of both limiting and chronic health conditions.6 The CDC’s BRFSS Prevalence and Trends Data's 2020 estimates for Iowa show the relationship between health and education below.

Education Level Healthcare Coverage Has a Healthcare Provider 14 or More Days without Good Physical Health 14 or More Days without Good Mental Health Fair or Poor Health
Less than HS 66.40% 64.50% 13.7% 18.60% 28.70%
High School or GED 88.70% 75.40% 11.10% 13.60% 14.90%
Some Post-HS Education 92.90% 78.30% 8.70% 14.40% 11.10%
Bachelors Degree or Higher 97.20% 82.60% 5.00% 8.50% 7.10%

All values are from the C.D.C.'s BRFSS Prevalence and Trends Data's 2020 estimates. These can be found at

1 Perrin, A. J., & Gillis, A. (2019). How college makes citizens: Higher education experiences and political engagement. Socius, 5, 2378023119859708.

2 Yang, Y. (2008). Social inequalities in happiness in the United States, 1972 to 2004: An age-period-cohort analysis. American sociological review, 73(2), 204-226; Andersson, M. A. (2018). Against all odds or by dint of privilege? Happiness and life satisfaction returns to college in America. Socius, 4, 2378023118773158.

3 Schwadel, P., & Garneau, C. R. (2014). An Age–Period–Cohort Analysis of Political Tolerance in the United States. The Sociological Quarterly, 55(2), 421-452.

4 Schwartz CR. 2010. Pathways to homogamy in marital and cohabiting unions. Demography 47:735–53

5 Hamad, R., Elser, H., Tran, D. C., Rehkopf, D. H., & Goodman, S. N. (2018). How and why studies disagree about the effects of education on health: A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies of compulsory schooling laws. Social Science & Medicine, 212, 168-178.

6 Herd, P., Goesling, B., & House, J. S. (2007). Socioeconomic position and health: the differential effects of education versus income on the onset versus progression of health problems. Journal of health and social behavior, 48(3), 223-238.

Q: There are a lot of famous people that didn’t go to college and are successful. They didn’t need college, why do I?

A: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg are all billionaire entrepreneurs without college degrees. But, the three all attended elite universities at some point before settling into Silicon Valley. As our chart below shows, only a few Iowa high school graduates can expect to become a professional actor, athlete, dancer, or musician and the likelihood decreases substantially if someone wants to be a star in their field. Though there are many social media influencers without a college degree, 60% of influencers make under $50,0007 a year. The same survey indicates that even after four years of making content, 54% of influencers made under $20,000 a year. 

Area of Employment

Probability of Holding the Job

Expected Number of Iowa Students from the Graduating Class of 2021 Being Professionals in Field

Median Wage

















Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Center for Education Statistics. *Computed by Iowa College Aid from data sources.

7 NeoReach (n.d.). Creator Earnings - Benchmark Report 2021. Retrieved from 

Q: Which college degrees are worthwhile?

A: Though we hesitate to say which degrees are or are not worthwhile, Future Ready Iowa provides information on the top growing jobs within Iowa and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook provides information on which jobs are growing, the type of degree training needed, income outlook, and information about what you can expect while working the job. After all, many find work-life balance as important as income. Finally, the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity has information on the long-term return on investment for specific degrees and certificates at community colleges, four-year colleges, and graduate schools.