Attending college has become increasingly politicized. As a result, discussing the relative costs and benefits of college has become somewhat contentious. This is unfortunate because for many people paying for college will be their second largest purchase, second only to their home.
Similar to purchasing a home, many people fund college with debt. The trend of student debt has increased dramatically; for example, over the past 20 years the average amount of debt per student borrower has, incredibly, more than tripled.
Ever increasing levels of student loan debt are not necessarily “bad,” and could actually be good if the benefits realized exceed all of the costs. However, this is not always the case. For example, on a recent business trip I was sitting next to a young man who was clearly on his way to basic training. Being a veteran myself I asked the obvious opening question: “Heading to basic training?”
He answered in that sort of nervous tone anyone who has gone through basic training immediately recognizes,” Yeah, I joined the Navy.”
I replied, “That’s great. What led you to choose the Navy?”
“I really like submarines. Plus, I had to get a job. I have a lot of student loan debt and couldn’t get a job.”
To which I replied, “Oh, I didn’t know you were going to be an officer.”
“I’m not going to be an officer. I didn’t pass the test. I’m going in as a sailor and hopefully after a couple of years I will be able to take the test again on an in-service basis and become an officer.”
I learned that this young man studied Political Science at an average university, and therefore he should have been educated to a level necessary to pass a military officer examination. That did not happen, but instead of being angry he simply stated, “I really should have thought long and hard about what I wanted out of college before I went. I’ll be paying for that mistake for a long time to come.”
One way to evaluate if college is “worth it” for you is to prepare a list of expected costs and benefits. All college costs should be listed including tuition, dormitory costs, and the amount of money you could be making if you decided to work instead of going to college.
On the benefit-side, you should record the amount of money you expect to make from the date you expect to land a job. Many universities provide job placement statistics, if asked, especially for programs like engineering, accounting, and criminal justice.
But what about general programs of study like Political Science, Business Management, and Liberal Arts? The benefits of such programs can vary widely. For example, many people who studied these subjects at top-tier schools have done fine. Others, however, have not done as well.
The process of carefully thinking through what you specifically want out of college before you enroll can help focus attention on whether college is the best use of your money at the present time. If it is not, alternatives such as trade schools, and other forms of technical training could be explored.
Significantly, there is no reason why college can’t be revisited at a later date, after a few years of work. In fact, practical experience could help bring educational needs into focus, and it could also help to uncover economical ways of funding those needs.
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