Getting a college degree is worth the financial cost for most students — as long as you graduate and are able to pay back your student loan debt. With the cost of college continually rising, it’s prudent to consider what you can afford before enrolling.
If you do decide to attend college, student loans will likely help cover at least some of your expenses. How much debt you can afford comes down to your chosen college, the cost of living where you settle after graduation, and how much you can expect to earn with your first job.
Your field of study in college has a big influence on your future income, and federal data from past undergraduates can help give you a sense for whether student loans are worth it for your major. The data, known as the College Scorecard, shows the median debt upon graduation by major, as well as incomes one year after leaving school.
Use the calculator below to see the projected income and debt for your major; then use that info to help you make an affordable college choice.
Why college is worth it
There are many reasons to go to college. Statistics generally show that earning a college degree leads to:
More pay: Earnings typically increase with higher levels of education. The median weekly earnings for workers with a high school diploma and no college was $781 in 2020, compared with $1,305 for those with a bachelor’s degree and $1,545 for those with a master’s degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS. Steadier employment: The unemployment rate decreases with higher levels of education, according to the BLS. The unemployment rate for people who didn’t attend any college was 9% in April 2021, compared with 5.5% for bachelor’s degree holders. Better benefits: College-educated workers are more likely to have employer-provided health insurance and retirement plans, according to the 2019 College Board “Education Pays” report. For instance, 52% of full-time workers with a high school diploma had employer-provided health insurance in 2018, compared with 64% of bachelor’s degree holders and 70% of advanced degree holders.
Compared with high school graduates, bachelor’s degree holders are also more likely to vote, volunteer and participate in their communities, according to the College Board report.
» MORE: Is a masters degree worth it?
Completing college is crucial
Without a degree, you won’t reap the earnings and employment benefits of higher education. If you take out loans to start a degree and don’t finish, you’ll also be saddled with debt.
Starting and not finishing a degree means you’ll be about four times more likely to default on student debt compared with college graduates, according to data cited by the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization focused on public policy.
But not all degrees will yield the same earnings and job prospects. The degree level, major and school can play a role in your post-graduation employment outcomes.
Undergraduate degrees in materials or mechanical engineering can garner median incomes of more than $65,000 a year out of college, with debts of less than $25,000. On the other hand, a degree in audiovisual communications leads to a median wage of about $27,000 a year, and a total debt of about $34,500.
» MORE: 3 Reasons to choose a college based on price
Potential earnings shouldn’t be the only factor behind your choice of major; your interests and skills are important, too. But if you choose a lower-earning major, try to take on less debt to avoid being overburdened when it’s time to repay.
So how much should I borrow for college?
Even if you graduate, get a job and start earning income, college may not feel worth it if you’re swimming in more debt than you can afford.
To estimate what a manageable college debt load looks like for you, aim for student loan payments that don’t exceed 10% of projected after-tax monthly income your first year out of school.
For example, someone earning $34,414 a year — the median salary one year after graduating for the salaries listed in the calculator — shouldn’t be paying more than $192 a month toward student debt.
» MORE: How to pay for college
Below, you can see the median income by major one year after graduating, alongside the median debt. Use it to help you decide which higher education options are best for you.
The calculation accounts for about 33% of gross income going to federal and state taxes, and 401(k) contributions. It also assumes a 10-year repayment schedule and a 3.73% interest rate, which is the 2021-22 federal student loan interest rate for undergraduate direct loans.
The average in-state cost, including tuition and room and board, of a four-year, public university was $22,690 for the 2021-22 school year, according to the College Board. Nonetheless, many parents and high school students are unclear about what college will end up costing.
A study from Fidelity, a financial services company, found that one-quarter of high school parents thought the full cost of college for one year would be less than $5,000; 38% of high school students thought the same.
Keep in mind that some colleges are more expensive than others. If the median debt for your major is unaffordable based on median income, that isn’t to say you have to choose another major. Instead, consider all college and funding options available to you and compare the prices of each.