Is College “Worth It?”

Perhaps we should start at the beginning. Is college worth it? I’m certain it would depend on who you would ask. I know of plenty of successful graduates of law school, medical school, and graduate school. They’d likely answer in the affirmative. Neither of my parents graduated from college. Yet both have established a life worth living for each of them. I get asked so frequently if I believe that college is “worth it” from so many different people. What I can say, and will do my best to describe to you in this post – is detail who can (and should) answer yes, and who should answer no.

My Own Experience

I think I can describe some good and bad from my college experience. For starters, my current job (a CFP) does require a bachelor’s degree. I would also say that I’ve forged relationships from my college years that I still hold to this day. Lastly, I was part of a team (football) that taught lessons that spanned way beyond the classroom. I lived on campus for 3 years, including one as a resident assistant. I also had no clue what I was doing when it came to paying for school, and my intended career choice changed after graduation.

The Good

  1. I was pushed outside my comfort zone: I’m a homebody. And not afraid to admit it! But when I moved to the campus I was attending, I was saying goodbye to the life I knew for 17 years. I love my parents, and love my family. So when I was to live with a stranger and adjust to a new life, it was something I wasn’t ready for. But eventually, we all move out. I think that helped the next time it happened for me.
  2. I forged worthwhile relationships: I studied hard, and was a member of team that required a lot of time and commitment. When you do those things, you naturally find people who want to help. Those people form bonds and can help you outside of college in many ways. I think one of the most valuable things from a college degree is not so much the degree, but the networks of people you interact with. I got an awesome internship from my professor/advisor. I received numerous letters of recommendations to close associates of coaches. To this day, I keep in touch with many of them. I’d argue this made college worth it more so than the “knowledge” learned in classes.
  3. I learned to become resourceful. Without having my parents looking down at me every night, I learned I needed to become accountable. I felt it important to make sure that I not let myself dig any holes I couldn’t get out of. Thankfully, I was able to establish a system and “break free” from anyone telling me what to do. Sometimes, learning on your own can be the best teacher. College will allow for that. It did for me.

The Bad

  1. I was unaware of the true cost: Had I known how much college really was (aka – what would my student loan payment be once I graduated), I would’ve thought long and hard if it was truly worth it for me. Paying my student loan now has taught me that. Many times, parents and students don’t think this through. I wish I had. I could’ve better answered if college was worth it or not. I didn’t ask that question going in.
  2. The Environment: Was I in the right environment? Probably not. I won’t mince words. There’s a hookup culture in college. There’s an idea of being “young, wild, and free.” Unfortunately, you hear it all the time about things getting out of control. I can say I did some things I’m not proud of. It wasn’t good for me mentally or spiritually.
  3. I wasted time & money: I believe this is more a product of the system than the school, to be clear. But I took classes I didn’t need to take. There were at least 6 classes I can vividly remember needing to graduate that were nothing short of time fillers. Geology? Nope, didn’t need it. Latin American Studies? Fun class. Didn’t need it. Watching Hitchcock movies and talking about it afterwards? Love the movies. Hated spending all that money on it. These were “gen-ed’s” required to graduate.

What I’d do differently

Life is about making choices. When you say yes to one thing, you’re saying no to something else. Graduating from college wasn’t something I necessarily “celebrated.” It was a step toward the next one. I’d been told since I was a young kid that this would help get me where I wanted to be in life. But I was living someone else’s dream for me – I wasn’t chasing my own. So yeah…I’d do things differently knowing what I know now.

  1. Find a better way to pay: If I’d known what I know now, I’d say I overpaid for college. I have no one to blame but myself. I didn’t do the necessary research.
  2. Live off campus: Wait, didn’t you say that it was a good thing you moved out? Yes, and I believe that’s a necessary quality to consider. But I don’t think the college lifestyle benefited me. I wish I’d find another place to live.
  3. Knock out the gen-ed’s at community college: I could’ve saved a good amount of money researching the costs of community college & the courses that would’ve transferred over. I didn’t do that properly. I could’ve saved good money. That’s money I could have either loaned or spent elsewhere. Opportunity cost is a real thing (something I learned in ECO105 – thanks Professor P!)

Who Should Consider an Alternative to College?

Call it what it is – college isn’t for everyone! I had an English teacher who insisted we must go to college to be successful. Hogwash! My father is my hero in so many ways. An amazing husband, loving father, hardest-working man I know. He is also NOT a college graduate. Yet, somehow, he makes a respectful living, lives a disciplined life, and is a genuinely happy man. How is that possible? Well, if I had to guess, it’s because he considered other options.

  1. Military track: My father joined the Navy out of high school. He traveled the world while serving his country. I don’t doubt that he has learned discipline and tools that college may not have taught him. I think that’s important to know that the military can the route for high schoolers.
  2. Entrepreneurs: Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Colonel Sanders. You either know these names or you use something they’ve invented. They all dropped out of school at one point. Yet, they made it out okay. Because an entrepreneurial vision should never be tamed. I know of a young man who started a landscaping business at age 14. It’s taken off and he’s doing better than most in their 50’s. College would’ve slowed him down.
  3. Someone Unsure: It’s entirely possible that we have people unsure what to do when they are 18. I don’t know the percentages, but it’s not an insignificant number. So instead of deciding that college is “the way,” give it some time.

Who Should Consider College

  1. Future Professionals: Conversely to those in subset 3 of the last section, some people know what they want to do. Law school, med school, grad school. All require some level of a bachelor’s degree.
  2. Certain Fields that require a degree: Similar to section 1 – if you’re going into a career that involves business, finance, psychology, or computer science (among many others), college is almost certainly in your future.

Best way to Prepare

“A smart person learns from his mistakes, but a truly wise person learns from the mistakes of others.” – Ken Schramm.

Please, take my (free) advice from someone who went through it. Do your research. Know the cost. Learn how financial aid works. Understand the courses you’ll be required to take. Think long and hard about your future career. Again, life is about opportunity cost. When you say yes to something, you say no to something else. Is college worth it? Your answer must be clear before you go ahead and make a commitment. But perhaps we should be asking a different question – how can we make college worth it?

Give yourself the tools needed to make this decision. Your answer will differ than your neighbors. Your first child’s answer will differ from your second. But to avoid the trap of waste – you must do your research. Time is money. 4 years is a long time. $10’s of thousands of dollars is a lot of money. Your decision is a heavy one. Invest the time and thought wisely.

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