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enlightenmentStudent debt is a very real problem; for many Americans, it has become an unsurmountable barrier and a red mark on their credit. It’s understandable that prospective students and their families would ask themselves, “Really, do I need college?”

No doubt, college graduates make more money than those without degrees – that’s backed up by plenty of statistics and research. But is it all about the money? What else about the experience is valuable? We believe there are a host of benefits to consider.

Change your way of thinking

Ask just about any college professor, and they’ll tell you college isn’t just about learning technical skills or job training – it’s about learning to think critically, solve problems, and explore innovative ideas and methods. In fact, according to some educators, it isn’t about just learning at all: it’s about learning how to learn.

College offers a unique chance to challenge yourself and open your mind to possibilities about who you can be and what you can do. In learning how to process information, dig deep, and educate yourself, you learn to understand yourself differently. You also have to chance to be exposed to new ideas that you can accept or reject, which for many people may be the first time that opportunity has been offered. College is a rite of passage, whether it’s a coming of age or a new beginning.

Networking

Part of learning about new ways of thinking and living includes the people you meet in college. That comes in many forms. One is diversity: your classmates will not all be like you, but you will have to interact with them, do projects with them, talk with them, and learn to work with them. They will come from different backgrounds and lifestyles, and you may not become best friends forever, but getting to know them will enrich your life.

On the other hand, there are the people who you make deep personal connections to, who remain friends for the rest of your life, who attend your wedding, send gifts when your children are born, and say nice things about you to your biographer. They’re also the people you can call on when you’re looking for an employment reference or lead on a job – because half of success is who you know.

College minded = civic minded

Because of the critical thinking skills they’ve developed, and the diversity of people they’ve met, college graduates tend to be more engaged citizens than those who have no education. For instance, according to polls, college graduates vote at much higher rates than non-graduates: more than half of nonvoters have no college attendance, but more than 70% of voters have college experience – a difference of almost 20%!

According to the U.S. Bureau Labor Statistics (BLS), college educated people are also much more likely to volunteer in community service or civic organizations than those who have not attended college; almost 40% of college graduates did some volunteer work, more than 20% higher than those who only finished high school.

Graduates are healthier

Finally, college graduates are usually committed to healthier lifestyles as well. According to a 2012 National Center for Health Statistics article, people with a college education live an average of nine years longer than high school dropouts. Compared to people with lower education levels, college graduates tend to adopt healthier behaviors (because of those critical thinking skills we talked about), and have better medical care (because of the higher average income). On average, they smoke and drink less, eat better, and exercise more, largely because they’re better informed and more financially secure.

When you take all these unsung benefits into account, college begins to seem like a better and better investment.