By James Militzer

For years, “going to college” typically meant pursuing a bachelor’s degree. But with today’s hyper-competitive job market and the variety of post-secondary programs available, choosing a degree may no longer be so simple. How can you decide how much education is right for you?

The case for four years

According to many experts, a bachelor’s degree is still the standard entry point to most professional careers. “With the economy the way it is, companies are hiring fewer and fewer people, and they’re expecting more out of their employees,” says Jason Rich, author of The Everything College Survival Book. “So a job that did not require a four-year degree five years ago may now require it, just because employers can demand it. If you can’t afford it, or logistically it’s not possible, then getting a community college degree is the next best thing. But if there’s any way you can do a four-year college degree, do it,” he says.

Laurence Shatkin, career consultant and author, agrees. He cites a U.S. Census Bureau study showing that bachelor’s degree holders average almost $1 million more in lifetime earnings than high school graduates. What’s more, he says, “The kind of high-tech, fast-moving, global economy we have now requires that people learn throughout their careers-new skills, new technologies, new business environments. And a bachelor’s degree teaches you learning skills, like reading comprehension, self-discipline, and independent, critical thinking. And that’s one reason employers value it as much as they do. Of course, it also represents a commitment of four years, which represents a kind of maturing process that employers respect.”

When two years is enough

However, that doesn’t mean a four-year degree is the right choice for everyone, says Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of The College Solution and college blogger for U.S. News and World Report online and CBS moneywatch.com “You can’t just say, ‘To get a good job, you need a bachelor’s degree, so everyone should go get one.’ Frankly, I think people succeed best in their careers if they find something they’re really passionate about. And for some students, vocational careers would be best. You have a higher likelihood of doing well if you find something you really enjoy, and go for it. And that might be working on a Mercedes, or it could be studying philosophy.”

But if you do opt for a bachelor’s program, O’Shaughnessy says, make sure you’re capable of doing the work. “If you haven’t done particularly well in high school, you should probably consider going to community college first. Then, if you do well there, you can move up to a four-year school. Because if you’re not prepared to deal with the rigors of college and you wash out, then you could have a bunch of loans, with no degree and little prospect of paying them back.”

What’s right for you?

Rich counsels a similarly practical approach to graduate school. “Don’t just keep getting degrees for the sake of getting degrees, unless it’s actually going to help you land the job you want,” he says. “It depends on the type of career you’re looking for, and the type of company you want to work with.

Some companies will only promote you to a certain level unless you have a graduate degree. Others don’t care so much about the degrees, and are more concerned about your performance. So you’ve got to focus on what the real world wants, and kind of mold yourself to that.”

If you’re having trouble deciding between different degree options, Shatkin says, don’t be afraid to take it slow. “You might start out with a two-year degree. Then if you want to continue getting more academic skills, go onto the bachelor’s.

You might even be able to work in that occupation while taking night courses to finish the bachelor’s degree, then work for a while before deciding if you want to go to grad school. It may be advisable to go in and out of careers that way, rather than deciding what your ultimate career goal is at the very beginning.”

But regardless of the degree you pursue, Shatkin believes that higher education is a necessity. “Everybody needs some sort of post-secondary training,” he says. “The options for people with a high school diploma are eroding constantly. This last recession took the low-skilled jobs that people could do with a high school diploma, and shipped them overseas or replaced them with robots. And it looks like those jobs are not coming back.”