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The ROI of College: Why an Undergrad Degree is Worth It

We’ve all seen the headlines: an opinion piece in the New York Times fretting that “College May Not Be Worth It Anymore”; a 2021 report discovering that the average price tag for undergraduate education had increased by an alarming 169 percent since 1980; and countless articles and studies addressing the American student loan crisis.

With all of this, it’s easy to think college isn’t worth it anymore—that the cost is too high and the return on investment is too low. But, despite the unsettling statistics and alarmism about the future of higher education, a college degree is still overwhelmingly worth it. From salary increases to network opportunities and more, here are five reasons why the ROI of an undergraduate degree definitely pays off. 

You’re more marketable with a college degree.

The modern American economy is driven by a college education. Whereas in the 1970s, three out of four jobs only required a high school diploma or less—a study from Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute found that, in 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the economy required postsecondary education and training beyond high school and 35 percent of job openings required at least a bachelor’s degree.

So, yes, the cost of college has increased astronomically in the last four decades. But, that’s because the value of a college degree has increased astronomically as well. In the past, a college degree was reserved for more niche careers and wealthier classes of Americans. Presently, however, a college degree is a prerequisite for access to almost two-thirds of the job market. You’re simply more marketable with a college degree. This makes it well worth the investment. 

You expand and improve your skill sets.

In the last 25 years, the American marketplace made a hard shift to a services- and knowledge-based economy. The most in-demand job skills reflect this shift. The same Georgetown study projects that, from 2020 onward, these three trends will mark the American labor market in the 21st century:

  • Job openings in healthcare, community services, and STEM will grow the fastest.
  • Judgment/decision-making, communications, analysis, and administration will be the four most in-demand competencies.
  • The demand for physical skills will continue to decline.

All three of these trends are heavily tilted in favor of college-educated individuals. Employers are seeking workers who have the hard and soft skills necessary for our contemporary world of knowledge work and service orientation. In short, an undergraduate degree not only makes you more marketable on paper; it actively teaches you the skills to thrive in the marketplace of today.

You increase your earning potential.

Let’s get to the cold, hard numbers. Sure, an undergraduate degree gives you access to jobs; it teaches you skills you’ll potentially use in your future career. But these are hypotheticals.  As tuition expenses rise each year, it’s imperative to evaluate the economic impact enrolling in a degree program will have on your personal life. What about the direct data? What is the actual, countable return on investment of a bachelor’s degree? Luckily, the actual numbers argue heavily in favor of a bachelor’s degree.

The Economic Policy Institute found high school graduates made $20.09 per hour on average in 2020; while bachelor’s degree earners made $36.84. Thus, in 2020, receiving a college degree could result in an 83% increase in average wages. And this earning potential only increases over time. According to the Education Data Initiative, because of this substantial salary increase, the 20-year ROI of a bachelor’s degree is 38.1% and the lifetime ROI is 287.7%. This increased earning potential more than makes up for the initial upfront cost of an undergraduate education. Getting a bachelor’s is an investment that pays off dividends for the rest of your life.

You experience greater quality of life.

Pursuing a college degree is not just confined to salary increases, however. There is substantial evidence that higher education impacts mental, emotional, and physical health extremely favorably.

A recent NBC article aggregated research about college and its effect on happiness. The findings were striking. According to Dr. Jeffrey Arnett, a developmental psychologist and psychology professor quoted in the article, “Education is probably more strongly correlated with future happiness throughout adulthood than any other variable.” A 2016 Pew survey found that adults with less than a high school education are more than twice as likely as those with a bachelor’s degree or more education to say they are not happy with their lives.

Beyond general happiness and better mental health, having a college degree is correlated with other important aspects of a thriving life: people who go to college also tend to have better health outcomes, more stable marriages, and longer lives than those who didn’t graduate from high school. Demonstrably, a college degree offers more than meets the eye.

You discover a deeper sense of purpose.

And perhaps one of the most important non-financial benefits is how a postsecondary degree can help you find your purpose. College has the unique ability to offer space and time for you to examine your worldviews and explore different perspectives, so you can better uncover who you are and what you want to do with your life.

According to Dr. Ben Ries, associate dean for vocational formation at ACU Online, “So many times, people separate their work from the rest of their lives, but they’re often not mutually exclusive.” Dr. Ries goes on to explain. “At ACU, we don’t only care that students are intellectually developed, but that we’re helping them identify that in which they care about. We want to encourage them to bring their full sense of self into the world around them.” Vocational formation woven throughout a college education allows students to reflect on how to live integrated lives and provides opportunities for them to take the next steps in their spiritual journeys, both in the classroom and beyond.

So, at the end of the day, the reason ACU Online offers quality higher education is not just to enable you to earn a higher salary (though this is a nice perk). ACU Online is committed to educating the next generation of professionals because we believe that, in meaningful work, you discover God’s calling on your life to shape this world for the better. And that’s ROI that money can’t buy. 

Want to experience the benefits of investing in an undergraduate program for yourself? Contact us at 855-219-7300 or visit to see if one of our online programs is a good fit for you. 

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