Is College Worth It?

Former Education Secretary William J. Bennett’s book by that title challenges this sacred assumption.

A hundred years ago the answer was almost always “Yes.”’  In that era, with very few college-educated people, almost any degree set one apart for assured employment and higher income.

Today the answer is, “Yes” and “No.”  Granted, college can be enlightening by helping a person to reason, explore, and create.  Having a degree may help one’s self esteem, add prestige to one’s resume and open doors in certain professional circles.  Graduating from an excellent college with the right major can add $500,000 to over $1 million to one’s lifetime income.

But, as Bennett accurately ponders, will college have a real economic return for you?  The wrong college, paying too much and the wrong major (for who you are) can severely dent your gains.  Shockingly, some graduates have negative lifetime returns on their college investments.  They may end up unemployed, underemployed, underappreciated and/or deep in debt.

College costs have skyrocketed.  Forty years ago, I got into one of the best public universities, attended for six years, and got a bachelor’s and master’s for less than what it costs for one semester at UT or A&M today.  An excellent public college may cost $100,000 and a private one $200,000 or more for four years.  Consequentially, competition for admission to public universities is fierce because they are half the cost.  Need-based aid, scholarships and loans are often critical to paying for college.

Can college be worth it?  As a college financial consultant, I read the materials on ‘best colleges’, ‘best values’, and ‘best deals’.  Value depends on what you measure.  I could devise a set of criteria that could rate almost any college as number one in something.  Here are five tips:

  1. Survive. Only 40% of students finish their degrees in four years and only 60% in six.  Preparation is vital.  It is like the Olympics.  Have a goal.  Know who you are.  Know the competition.  Train and train and train.  Practice persevering at something (scouts, rock climbing, sports?).  Set a healthy schedule and keep to it.  Take some breaks, but avoid party lifestyles.
  2. Major in something that leads to a job. If you like to sing, by all means sing, but unless you are willing to be a music teacher, have another major.  Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) majors are popular because they lead to higher pay on average.  However, if you are not wired for STEM, it is better for you to excel in say technical writing than to become a mediocre underemployed engineer.  (I recommend taking the Birkman personality assessment at Bright Futures Consulting to understand how you are wired.)
  3. Match yourself to the college. Some students do well at large colleges and others at smaller ones, some technical, some liberal arts.  If you have a desired vocation and major, which I recommend, research colleges that offer those programs and have cultures suited to you.  Also, some two-year degrees lead to rewarding vocations at far lower cost. (Bright Futures Consulting offers a College Selection Service for precisely this purpose)
  4. Don’t overpay. Would you pay $265,000 to attend Harvard?  I wouldn’t, even if I could get in.  Harvard might not add that much extra to my lifetime earnings over a less prestigious, but excellent college for $100,000 or less.  Studies show that who you are, your character and abilities, not where you attend, is a much greater predictor of success.  Finding a mentor, study group and favored professor are also highly correlated with success.
  5. Get the most in scholarships and need-based aid. This is an art form.  If you are a top SAT/ACT student, applying to a slightly less prestigious college will likely yield more in scholarship aid.  Knowing how to position your family’s finances can also save thousands of dollars.  I have seen many students get private college educations for less than public one because they planned and shopped smartly. (Bright Futures Consulting offers an expert to help with this too.)

Is college worth it?  It certainly can be, but planning is vital.

Raymond Van Buskirk, MBA

Mr. Van Buskirk works for Bright Futures Consulting.  His is a retired pastor and former Senior Executive, U.S. Department of Education.