Is a college degree worth the investment? For many families, the reality is that college is a huge financial investment.  The hope is that college will lead to a good job. Parents may want to guide their student to select a major that fits the student’s interest.  At the same time, the student may want a career that makes financial sense.

Of course, unnecessary pressure can cause stress and anxiety—which students certainly don’t need. However, an appropriate amount of guidance can alleviate the stress of uncertainty.  Students may feel better knowing about their career prospects and their ability to pay off college loans.

As an example, let’s look at a high school student who is interested in nutrition. A job that seems to be a good fit is a position as a nutritionist or dietitian. There are a couple of major sources of information to dig into.

Your College Advisors Guide to A is for Admission

Bureau of Labor Statistics: Job Outlook & Salary

Search online for Bureau of Labor Statistics Dietitian. You’ll reach a summary that includes the median pay and job outlook for dietitians and nutritionists. The website explains the meaning of median pay: “The wage at which half of the workers in the occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. Median wage data are from the BLS [Bureau of Labor Statistics] Occupational Employment Statistics survey. In May 2016, the median annual wage for all workers was $37,040.”

The median annual salary for all workers in May 2016 was $37,040.  So, dietitians and nutritionists in 2016 did quite well with an annual salary of $58,920.

Another positive sign is that the job outlook for dietitians and nutritionists for 2016-2026 is 15%. The Bureau of Labor Statistics explains the meaning of job outlook in this context: “The projected percent change in employment from 2016 to 2026. The average growth rate for all occupations is 7 percent.”

Even though you see these positive signs, continue your research by looking at the cost of the degree required to enter this career.

The Cost of the Degree

In addition to information on employment outlook, the Bureau of Labor Statistics also describes how to obtain a certain job. Continuing with the example of dietitians and nutritionists, navigate to the “How to Become a Dietitian or Nutritionist”. You’ll see a wealth of information.  One key fact is that to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, one needs a bachelor’s degree and a Dietetic Internship. Importantly, the information says, “Students may complete both criteria at once through a coordinated program, or they may finish their required coursework and degree before applying for an internship.”

Completing an internship sounds like a hefty requirement. However, students can do their internship while completing their bachelor’s. That means that students don’t need to wait until they graduate before completing an internship — if they choose a “coordinated program”.

What’s great about the “How to Become a ___” section is that you know exactly where to go next for more information. There’s a link to the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics, which has a directory of accredited programs in nutrition and dietetics.

Enter the state where you want to find a coordinated program.  Let’s look at an example of a coordinated program offered by LaSalle University in Philadelphia, PA.  The estimated annual tuition is $28,800 for both Pennsylvania residents and non-residents.

Keep looking at other coordinated programs. For example, the program at Buffalo State in Buffalo, NY has an estimated annual tuition of $7,976 for residents and $17,626 for non-residents. The out-of-state annual tuition at Buffalo State is about $11,000 cheaper than at LaSalle.

Keep in mind that the numbers discussed here are the “sticker price”. Use each college’s net price calculator to get an estimate of out-of-pocket costs. Also, take into account housing costs and other expenses, including transportation and textbooks.

As part of the college search process, parents will want to also help their student look into other factors, including graduation rate, job placement rates, access to professors, and so forth.

Is This College Degree Worth the Investment?

Families have different objectives for sending their student to college and paying for the bills. For some, college is an enrichment opportunity. For others, college also needs to be a place that will help the student obtain a financially sustainable career. In the above example of a student interested in nutrition, it seems possible to find an affordable college that could lead to a job that’s in demand.  Moreover, the median salary of dietitians and nutritionists is well above the median salary across all jobs.

However, the story could be different for families who are helping their student to consider a college degree in, say, graphic design. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the 2016-2026 job outlook for graphic designers is 4%, which is slower than the average of 7%. Furthermore, the 2016 median annual pay was $47,640 (compared to $58,920 for dietitians and nutritionists).  Because the potential earnings and job prospects are lower, parents and their student may want to take a closer look at the cost of the graphics design degree.

Whether a college degree is worth it is a personal question.  As we can see, the answer depends on the family’s circumstance. Regardless, it’s important to avoid pressuring students to go into a certain direction without taking into account their interests.

There’s a lot of research to do when considering which major and which college, but all the time and effort is worth it.

(Photo: University of Minnesota Duluth)