Is a college degree worth the investment of time and money? Is a degree still a prerequisite for success? What does it really cost, who pays the price, and how does one make the most of the investment? What does financial planning for college look like? (Read our Ultimate Guide to Financial Planning Myths to learn how to save for college more efficiently.)
These are questions that students and parents alike are beginning to ask. Especially now, with many colleges offering only virtual classes, questions about the value and fit of college are louder than ever. (For ideas on funding college, read our Ultimate Guide to Financial Planning Myths.) This is the start of financial planning for college students.
According to the Los Angeles Times, early indicators point to fewer college applications this year. National data released earlier this month revealed that college enrollment in the high school class of 2020 plunged 22% from the previous year. Apparently, it’s harder to justify the price of college tuition when the learning environment is a two-dimensional screen.
With or without the current restrictions, the answer to “Is college still worth it?” may be, “It depends.” There is no one-size-fits all answer. For some, there are better options than traditional college. For others, college is the best, most prosperous choice!
In this article, we consider 5 questions and share an important addendum:
- Do you need to go to college?
- Do you need to go to college right now?
- What’s the true cost of college?
- Which fields of study lead to well-paying work?
- What OTHER opportunities exist?
- To go or not to go: Making the most of either choice.
Do you need to go to college?
Charlie Kirk contends the assumption that college is for everyone is an old paradigm. Founder of Turning Point USA, Kirk spends a lot of time on college campuses, educating students about the importance of free markets, capitalism and limited government. Sometimes, it is a battle against flawed assumptions.
“You have an entire generation of young people that is borrowing money they don’t have to study things that don’t matter to find jobs that don’t exist,” said Kirk recently in a video on the topic. “I sincerely believe (college) can be a worthwhile pursuit under the right circumstances… If you want to be a doctor or an architect, for example, it’s obviously a necessity.”
If you’ve been told college is essential to earn a decent income, that’s simply not true. A Georgetown University study revealed that there are 30 million jobs paying over $55,000 per year that DON’T require a college degree.
As Andrew Yang has pointed out, the focus on college often steers young people AWAY from specialized vocational training that could prepare them for careers. In Europe, nearly 50% of young people enroll in vocational training. In the U.S., only 6% of high school students enroll in similar programs. Yet unlike a degree in communications or political science, vocational training presents a clear pathway to real jobs. Just ask any electrician, dental hygienist, or HVAC technician!
Do you need to go to college right now?
Even if college ends up being the right choice, the pressure to go straight from high school to college can be counter-productive. There is little benefit to “pushing” a young adult into college if they aren’t ready or don’t have a clear career path.
On average, just 58% of students who enrolled in college in 2012 had obtained degrees 6 years later. For non-graduates, that represents wasted time and resources with little positive outcome!
For many students, it makes sense to take a year or more off after high school to work, travel, and gain skills or experience in one or more jobs. One or more “gap years” can be a valuable time to gain experience and clarity.
What’s the true cost of college?
The real price tag is usually far more than the one listed in the college brochure. Even if you believe college is the right decision, don’t neglect to calculate the opportunity cost from a financial standpoint.
If a student graduates with $100,000 of student loan debt, will that impact their ability to save, invest, and buy a home? Probably!
If the student’s parents foot the bill, then they pay the opportunity cost. $100k of college costs can later become a $500k hole in a portfolio down the road. That’s because the parents forfeit not only the college costs, but all of the money the $100k could have earned them in the years following. Parents with multiple children attending private school could be removing millions from their future nest egg.
If you are a parent, take care to ensure that your own needs—current and future—are handled before you volunteer to write a blank check for college. In recent years, there has been a trend of parents moving in with adult children in their older years. While such an arrangement can be positive for everyone, it is best if it is voluntary and not the result of inadequate savings!
Additionally, a little creativity and cooperation can go a long way to reducing the cost of a college degree. Students may be able to pay most or all of their tuition through a combination of work, grants and scholarships. In the spirit of “How can I afford this?” a family could start a business to create more cash flow, which could then fund college or repay loans.
There are endless ways to pay for college if that is the right choice. You’ll find 7 ways to reduce or avoid student debt in “Taming the High Cost of a College Education.”
Which fields of study lead to well-paying work?
Starting salaries for graduates in computer science or engineering fields (chemical, electrical, aerospace, industrial, mechanical) can land jobs beginning in the $50,000s to mid-$60,000s. Physician assistants can earn as much as $74,300 fresh out of school, according to VisualCapitalist.com. Mid-career, people in these fields are likely to earn between $90,000 and $107,000.
Lowest-paying fields include journalism, criminal justice, graphic design, Spanish, religion and education. (See article and graphic at Visual Capitalist, “Which College Degrees Get the Highest Salaries?”)
A college degree can be a requirement to apply for certain jobs. But the details of the degree—and whether it was obtained at a pricey private college or a more reasonable public university—are rarely the most important factors.
Obtaining the position and pay you desire often has more to do with:
- Your confidence.
- Your work ethic.
- Your ability to expand your network of connections.
- Your willingness to learn, grow, and leave your comfort zone.
- And your persistence in pursuing the job you want if at first you don’t succeed.
What OTHER opportunities exist?
College is not the only road to success. There are endless ways to create a fulfilling career and prosperous life. Some college alternatives include:
Work in the cloud. Udacity.com offers “nano-degrees” that students can obtain within 6 months to learn skills to work in the digital economy. Options include Data Engineer, Business Analytics, Programming and more.
Learn a trade. As mentioned before, vocational training offers many career choices. There is a comprehensive list of opportunities such as certification training, apprenticeships and trade schools at FindSomethingNew.org
Start a business. Whether you work your way up through the ranks at a traditional business or launch a business online, creating your own business can be fulfilling. The Thiel Fellowship (originally Peter Thiel’s “20 Under 20” program) and other programs such as small business grants are designed to help people with big ideas launch businesses. (No college degree required.)
There are many well-known entrepreneurs without college degrees, such as Bill Gates, John D. Rockefeller, Richard Branson, L’Oreal’s Liliane Bettencourt, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Rachel Ray and Ralph Lauren. People can and do succeed regardless of their background. As Henry Ford—who also did not earn a degree—said, “A man’s college and university degrees mean nothing to me until I see what he is able to do with them.”
To go or not to go: Make the most of either choice.
College isn’t a fit for everyone—and there is nothing wrong with that! And there are many methods of learning, from books and online courses to hands-on apprenticeships. The important thing is to find how you learn best and become a lifelong learner.
A wonderful book that outlines exactly what is required for success, with or without a degree, is Michael Ellsberg’s The Education of Millionaires. Subtitled “Everything You Won’t Learn in College about How to Be Successful,” Ellsberg challenges conventional wisdom that elevates academic knowledge while neglecting the skills that propel college dropouts to the Forbes list.
A college degree may open doors, but in many situations, a growth mindset will get you much further—with or without a degree. Don’t be the person who never tries something new, or who leaves school and never opens another book. There is so much to learn!
Peter Diamandis knows a thing or two about learning. Peter is an entrepreneur, physician, engineer, author, and founder of the X Prize Foundation. He says, “Whether it’s architecture or astrophysics, learning new things isn’t just a temporary activity. It’s an invaluable ritual that keeps us cognitively sharp and turns us into lifelong students.” He suggests choosing three books you’ve been meaning to read, or finding an online course or docu-series about a topic you know nothing about and diving in!
Figure out how you learn best (listening, reading, or watching), then go find new things to learn that force you to grow. Keep at it, make it a habit and you’ll literally feel the benefits because a stretched mind never returns to its original place.
A good resource for parents of teens and children is Conor Boyak’s book, Passion-Driven Education. It gives many ideas to inspire learning outside of the classroom. When education is “interest-driven” it becomes interesting!
Many people end up finding work they love by a circuitous route. Sometimes in the process of learning and discovery, your next step becomes obvious. We like to say there are many paths up the Prosperity Mountain. Some of them must be discovered step-by-step!
At Partners for Prosperity, we love to discuss concepts such as opportunity cost and help people find creative financial solutions. If we can be your sounding board, reach out to us via phone or email.
—By Kim Butler and Kate Phillips