Getting Real About College Again… Part 1

I’ll risk a blinding flash of the obvious: college is expensive.  If a house costs $500K+, a car costs $50K-ish, it rocks my world to think about the 4-year cost of a private or out-of-state public school—easily $200K-$300K+!  While I understand the debate about whether college is worth the cost, the statistics are stark: a bachelor’s degree adds millions to lifetime earning potential.

The Problem with College Pricing

College costs are both obvious and hidden.  The obvious costs include tuition, room and board, books, and fees.  The less obvious but estimable costs include travel to/from school… multiple times per year for both the student and family. The hidden costs may include tutoring during high school, application preparation services, application fees, test score transmittal fees, and, worst of all, paying more than you have to.

We’ll focus on this last part—paying the right amount for your family. You likely know that college prices have outpaced general inflation for several decades now. Unfortunately, it’s not just the prices that have inflated—the status symbol effect of a selective college has inflated, too.

Just the same way that luxury car brands have successfully trained us to think of driving their cars as a proxy for self-worth and a symbol of financial well-being, the college industry has trained our kids (and maybe many of us) that a high-end college is also a proxy for self-worth.  Being accepted to/attending an elite school has become the baseline of aspiration for many young adults.

How many people around you practice in the profession of their undergraduate degree? Do you? Especially for military families, the reality is that we earn an undergraduate degree and then start figuring out what our adult professional life will look like.  How many people around you have a graduate degree directly related to their undergraduate degree and their profession?  I’ll hazard a guess that this is an astonishingly small number.

It’s very possible our kids will go to college, earn a degree, and work 40 years in the field of that degree.  Perhaps they’ll continue to graduate/professional school and then work a career in that field.  The reality is that our 17 and 18-year-olds probably have no clue what their future self will be/do/want.

What is College For?

For some kids, college is the place where they network with elite professors, researchers, mentors, politicians, executives, physicians, attorneys, and connected peers as part of a preordained path to wealth and top-tier professional/personal accomplishment. It would be super if that were the likely path for most of our kids.

For most kids, college is the place where they build the life skills to get to the starting line of adulthood. College provides the opportunity to become accountable, organized, resilient, hard-working, adept at failure and recovery, self-sufficient, and yes, educated about some topics that one can get paid to work on.

That’s not mutually exclusive with making great friends and pre-professional connections, but the core things most kids need from college are:

  • Maturation into a self-propelled adult…
  • With a good vector towards a first job or graduate school…
  • In a topic that their couple-of-years older self has a better chance of choosing properly

Clearly, there are a lot of other important elements of college, like life-long friendships, critical thinking, exposure to new ideas, etc.

If you believe that what most kids need from college is the formation they need to become adults who can start to navigate an independent and professional life, then how much should that cost?

Next week, we’ll explore “the College Hangover.” Until then…

Fight’s On!

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