Woodrow Wilson High School
Second Place Winner, District of Columbia
Over the last few decades, students, parents and educators have begun to question the value of a
college degree in the face of steeply rising tuition costs and new, cheaper, learning opportunities on the
internet. Although the miraculous success stories of tech entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Mark
Zuckerburg may suggest otherwise, a college education is still immensely valuable for the average
American, like myself. College graduates are more financially secure, enjoy a higher quality of life
(according to several important indicators), and have better opportunities to make a difference in the
world, whether in their professional or personal lives.
Faith in higher education is the lowest it's been in decades, even as college enrollment rises. In a survey
conducted by Pew Research Center, 57% of Americans said the higher education system fails to provide
good value for the money they spend. The debate over college has become a deeply politicized topic,
evident by the 58% of Republicans who believe colleges and universities have a negative effect on the
way things are going in this country. This pessimism prevails even among college presidents. Only 7% of
college presidents surveyed thought that, ten years from now, the US system of higher education would
be the best in the world. Although the American university system is certainly flawed, high school
students my age must not lose sight of the invaluable advantages a college education grants them.
The most frequently cited reason to go to college is the difference in post-grad earnings. While my peers
and I are fully cognizant that money isn’t everything, we also know that income can make our lives
significantly easier and reduce economic stress. Americans with four-year college degrees make an
average of 98% more an hour than people without a degree. Critics of higher education argue that an
increased income does not compensate for the cost of a four-year bachelor's degree which has risen to
more than $250,000 at many private colleges. Despite the astronomical costs, a study by the New York
Fed found that a bachelor's degree still pays off, earning its recipients an annual return of almost 15%
over a decade. In a survey, 83% of college graduates agreed that the cost of their tuition had paid off.
Affording college is a challenge for most American families like mine, but it is an investment that pays off
over a lifetime.
The economic stability a college degree offers is even more important to me than earnings. My
generation witnessed firsthand the effects of the 2008 recession within our own communities and
families. Having seen the unemployment rate reach 10%, I highly value job security. During a recession,
Americans with a bachelor’s or master’s are 48-56% less likely to be unemployed.
News stories sensationalizing recent college grads who are unable to find jobs lead some to believe that
a degree doesn’t really make you more hireable. But in reality, career opportunity is much better for
college grads who benefit from a greater number of job openings, especially in growing sectors like the
technology industry. There are currently 10.2 million available jobs in the United States requiring a
college degree, compared to only 4.9 million requiring just a high school diploma. This difference is
staggering considering that roughly two-thirds of Americans don’t have a college degree. These workers are facing greater competition for fewer jobs, leaving many of them without work. The unemployment rate is 5.4% for those without a college degree; almost double the unemployment rate of 2.8% for those with a bachelor’s degree. With the greater sense of financial stability a degree provides, I will have the confidence to take career risks and seek out work that inspires passion within me instead of prioritizing jobs with better salaries.
Success means a lot more to me than income or career advancement. I take both my health and my
happiness into consideration when assessing important life decisions. After doing research, it’s clear to
me that receiving a college education can directly and indirectly improve my quality of life. Studies show
that more educated people tend to be healthier, have healthier children, have more stable marriages and
have stronger participation in community organizations. These differences are pretty dramatic, perhaps
best exemplified by the 7-year difference in life expectancy between Americans with college degrees and
those without. The positive social effects extend from the individual to the community, as college grads
are less likely to break the law, give more money to charity, pay more taxes, require less government
services, and spend more time volunteering. The social benefits of a college education are also evident in
peoples professional lives, with 56% of workers with a bachelor’s degree reporting job satisfaction
compared to a rate of only 44% for people with a high school diploma. Although numerous socioeconomic factors are at play in creating these divides, it’s clear that college will provide the necessary resources for me to acquire a sense of what I want to accomplish in my lifetime.
The social and personal development you undergo at college is invaluable, instilling skills that last a
lifetime. College campuses provide students with a multitude of opportunities to have new experiences
by participating in the many student groups and activities. I will explore my interests both inside and
outside of the classroom to discover where I excel and maximize my potential. Adapting to a completely
new environment and a new set of people will push me out of my comfort zone, preparing me to
embrace the challenges that I will face later in life.
College students form valuable relationships with peers, professors and alumni while on campus and
after graduating. Being surrounded by motivated and ambitious peers will inspire me to strengthen my
own drive and work ethic. College will not only allow me to learn firsthand from my professors, but also
from my peers. A wide range of academic interests are represented in the student bodies of colleges. In
my experience, the best lessons are learned from those with the most passion for the subject. I will
surrounded by passionate peers who I can learn from daily, whether I’m in a classroom or the dining hall.
After graduating, alumni networks will also facilitate my job searches by providing me connections to
professionals in various different fields.
I hope to double major in economics and environmental studies with the ultimate goal of working to fight
climate change through practical financial solutions such as green energy and sustainable agriculture. I
have yet to learn whether policy implementation, scientific research, or activism is the most effective method of accomplishing this goal. I hope to get a better sense of the answer to this question while in college. Because climate change is an interdisciplinary issue involving sociology, environmental science, urban planning, and agriculture, I will take full advantage of the wide scope of course offerings in higher education. Being well informed on a variety of subjects will give me a broad worldview and heightened career flexibility. Having spent my whole life in an urban area, I hope to attend a college that will afford me better access to the outdoors and hands-on environmental research opportunities.
Growing up in a generation saturated with the instant gratification and infinite possibilities of technology,
it is easy to question how the daunting cost of a college education could possibly be worth it. And yet in
the face of these doubts, we must continually remind ourselves of the indisputable financial, social and
career benefits of attending college. That said, the significant barriers many face in achieving a college
education should not be overlooked. The majority of Americans still do not graduate from college and
income inequality has continued to rise through the last few decades. Those who are lucky enough to
have the opportunity to attend college must commit themselves to making campuses welcoming
environments for people of all backgrounds and encourage the institutions they attend to improve
college accessibility for marginalized communities. In his first inaugural address, President Obama set a
goal for the country to “once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world”, a
vision to which all college students and graduates should commit themselves.
“Is College Worth It?” Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project, 15 May 2011.
Fingerhut, Hannah. “Republicans skeptical of colleges' impact on U.S., but most see benefits for
workforce preparation.” Pew Research Center, 20 July 2017.
Leonhardt, David. “Is College Worth It? Clearly, New Data Say.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 May 2014.
Maxfield, John. “Why going to college is important.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 14
DeSilver, Drew. “5 facts about todays college graduates.” Pew Research Center, 30 May 2014.
Beckstead, Rachel. “8 Major Benefits of College | Why Earn Your Degree.” Colleges & Degrees |
CollegeAtlas, 18 Jan. 2018.
Wilson, Reid. “Census: More Americans have college degrees than ever before.” TheHill, 3 Apr. 2017.
“Is College Still Worth It?” Is College Still Worth It? 11 Facts about the Value of a College Degree.
Weiner, Joann. “Do the benefits of a college education outweigh the cost?” The Washington Post, WP
Company, 22 Aug. 2014.
Merisotis, Jamie. “Want to Be Happier and Healthier? Then Go to College.” The Huffington Post, 15 Oct.
Ben Casselman. “Inequality Is Killing The American Dream.” FiveThirtyEight, FiveThirtyEight, 8 Dec. 2016.
Fry, Richard. “U.S. still has a ways to go in meeting Obama's goal of producing more college grads.” Pew
Research Center, 18 Jan. 2017.