How Much Should You Invest in a College Education?

If you’ve ever read any of my posts on the state of college education today, you know I’m not a big fan of using college as some sort of default option for young people who aren’t sure what else to do with their lives. That kind of strategy says less about a kid’s goals and ambitions in life than it does about the insecurities of his or her parents.

Sure a degree in something might increase their chance of finding post-graduate employment somewhere, but the type and duration of that job might not justify the massive cost of obtaining the education. And if junior changes his mind a year or two after graduation, the whole college investment just kind of goes poof!

There are at least three factors that might influence the decision to pursue a certain degree:

  1. Desire – does the student have a serious intent to apply herself to the rigors of the degree program?
  2. Aptitude – has the student demonstrated the ability and discipline required by the degree field? Some majors are more difficult than others.
  3. Is the major economically viable?
How Much Should You Invest in a College Education?
How Much Should You Invest in a College Education?

The first two points are unique to the student, but the last one is an economic issue that calls for some deep discussion.

What makes a degree viable

Since college now typically requires a six figure investment, spread out over several years, and usually followed by many years of servicing the debt used to obtain it, the economic viability of a career major cannot be ignored! College purists may recoil at the thought of using economics as a litmus test, but it’s completely necessary given the cost realities of today.

To be viable, a major should have at least some of the following characteristics:

  • The career field should have a long history of providing an above average income.
  • It should have staying power –  there are “hot” fields coming up all the time, but it’s often not clear that either the field will be around in 10 or 20 years, or even that a degree is the best way to enter it.
  • Since it takes at least four years to obtain an undergraduate degree, there should be solid indications that the field is viable enough to survive short term economic blips and that a job can reasonably be expected to be available upon graduation.
  • The field should offer a reasonable degree of mobility. Careers that have a small number of potential employers, are regionally centered or are in decline may not warrant a large investment in the education needed to enter the field.
  • A degree should be the preferred route in – many times we assume that to be true and find out it isn’t. If non-grads can enter the field as easily as grads can, then the field can quickly become saturated. That’s less of a problem for the non-grads since they don’t have the heavy education investment.

Fields like engineering and nursing certainly fit the criteria, but more general majors like liberal arts and business are becoming increasingly questionable.

All college degrees are not equal

It’s a fact that some degrees are worth more than others, and that’s become a critical point in deciding on whether or not to go to college at all. Or at least it should.

Twenty years ago you could pick just about any college major and chances are you’d find employment in that field upon graduation. Just as important, by any measure the cost of the degree was substantially lower than what it is today. Overall there was a lower risk-to-reward factor so defaulting in favor of college was the right choice.

Is that still true today? I don’t think so. I think the whole game has changed. For some career fields, a degree is the right path; for others you may need to come up with a Plan B.

A recent Yahoo Education article, College Degrees Employers Most Want, points out that employers favor certain degrees over others. The article reports that degrees in business administration, engineering, computer and information sciences, accounting and economics are currently in favor with employers.

I never take these kinds of reports too seriously, and this one should be taken with a large grain of salt as well. For example, it indicates that degrees in business administration and economics “may” lead to stellar positions in human resources or as a loan officer. From where I sit, it doesn’t seem that either of those careers offers the kind of stability they once did, but I digress. Such reports should serve as little more than a starting point in choosing a major.

My thinking is that a major should be chosen based on long-term career performance, not surveys and projections based on what’s hot now, or expected to be in a few years.

Being sure what it is you want to do with your life before taking the plunge

The cost of obtaining a college education can no longer be taken lightly – it’s simply too large of an investment. One of the best ways to reduce the risk and the cost is by taking the process slowly. I realize that most parents want their children to “get the career thing taken care of as soon as possible”, but that may no longer be practical.

If a young person isn’t sure what he or she wants to do it may help to take a year or two off from school to work and to just experience life. At 17 or 18, most kids really aren’t sure what they want to do with their lives, having only known school up to that point. Some real world/life experience can really help in gaining focus.

It may help to start out by attending a local community college. Not only is it less expensive than the traditional out-of-state/out-of-area, live-on-campus set-up, but the fact that the student is still living at home might encourage some sort of work/study combination. You might get an education in school, but it’s usually through work that you find your passion. That can be even more important than a “good” education.

It might also be worth taking random courses to find something you’re good at. Studying a single discipline deeply could do more to move a person to expert status then an entire degree program can. As an example, there are kids coming out of high school who know more about current technology than people in their 30s and 40s who have college degrees. That tells you something important about the world we live in. The future belongs to those who apply knowledge and technologies, not to those with credentials.

Once a young man or woman has an idea what they really want to do, the options may become easier – and less expensive. The point is, college should no longer be a default choice.

Do you agree that the time has passed to used college as a default option? Or that there are often better ways of finding a way to determine and develop a career?

( Photo from Flickr by Jason Bache )

6 Responses to How Much Should You Invest in a College Education?

  1. Hi Outofyourrut,
    On a similar note,, If you could save 20 percent off the cost of your college education, would you do it? Almost every student and parent that we have ever asked this question, agreed… Yes they would. Then how come so many students today are not taking advantage of the offer.
    Great Job!

  2. Students and families need to focus on issues like how economically viable is the major? Will this degree produce substantially above average income? There’s a real world out there. A six figure investment has to be done based on facts. As a personal opinion, college is way over priced. Nice article and thank you for all the food for thought.

  3. Hi Mike, thanks for your input. I think with the cost of college that it now must be viewed as an investment and not as some kind of virtue. There’s too much opportunity cost involved when the cost is as high as it is now.

  4. I can’t say how much other people should pay for higher education, but I absolutely feel that college is not for everyone. I insisted that my son go to college and it was right for him. He is an aeronautical engineer so a trade school was not appropriate for him. However, it is such a great alternative for others. The expense is not nearly as great, a curriculum can be completed much more quickly and the student then has a skill that makes them employable. Plus, they can make a very decent wage as an electrician, plumber, auto mechanic, HVAC tech etc. And many medical jobs only require a two year certificate and those jobs are everywhere. In the past, vocational education was always deemed appropriate for the “less gifted” kids but now I think that the ones who go that route are really the smartest.

  5. Thanks for this article — I will pass it to my 18 year old daughter to read. She is undecided in her major, although has talked about being a lawyer since her childhood. So we are doing 2 years at our city’s community college then 2 years at our state college (which is a Tier 2 or 3 school but will not put us into debt), and she’ll be majoring in something like Political Science. Then she can get a taste of the real world of work and pursue further education on her own. (Actually, she is going to work this year as a part-time waitress/hostess in a local, busy diner, and I am delighted because there is no better training for life than that kind of demanding job.)

    What is sad now is, when I started work in the 1980s, many employers would foot the entire undergrad or graduate tuition bill for you, usually if you could tie your degree in to the job. Now it is pretty rare I think. My employer covers up to $5000 a year grad school, which would not cover a competitive business school (ex. Wharton) tuition, fees, and books. I am utilizing Coursera (free to attend, and a small fee to get official completion certificates) to get my knowledge for the time being.

  6. My daughter – also 18 – is also working as a server. She hasn’t decided what she wants to do, so she’s taking a year off before beginning at community college. In the meantime, she’s getting valuable work experience, she’s making decent money (close to home), and saving most of it. But she actually likes the job and loves the work. I agree with you, being a server is excellent training for life in so many areas. She’s learning to earn her paycheck and to work with customers, two important life skills that she couldn’t learn at the most prestigious university.

    I remember when employers would pay or help pay for undergraduate, but they’re getting fewer and harder to find. Increasingly, we’re on our own in life, which means we have to do what we can to become more self-sufficient in everything we do. Personally, I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. It will pay dividends for life to the young people who can embrace it.

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