Is College Worth It?

Everyone knows about the rising costs of college – I mean, the skyrocketing costs of college. College is damn expensive, and the costs just seem to keep rising. Well above the average inflation rates, in fact. In a ten year span – from 2003-2013 – one small, private, New England university increased its tuition by roughly $16,000. From roughly $20,000 in 2003, to over $36,000 2013. Ouch! Those figures are just for tuition and do not include costs for housing (which would add another $12,000 – on average, during those years), fees, books, and so on.

Another way of analyzing this trend is to compare it to another high-priced ticket – cars. This rise would be akin to the sticker price of a car being set at $20,000 in 2003, and that same car being sold at $36,000 in 2013. Updates and redesigns would not add $16,000 to a car’s value. A $16,000 increase, instead, would take you to a different car altogether – from an entry-level car to a mid-sized or luxury car. It sounds ludicrous (even, laughable) that a dealer would sell a car for $20,000 in one year, and then sell that same car for $36,000 ten years later. That’s not inflation, that’s beyond comprehension. But, colleges do it all the time.

With the skyrocketing costs of education, parents and students are beginning to wonder, is college worth the cost. With good reason, too! Is it worth paying over $50,000 for a degree – from a liberal arts institution, let’s say – when the economy is disastrous and college graduates are finding it exceedingly difficult to find employment? When, and even IF, students do find jobs in the fields they studied all those years, they may have a difficult time repaying the loans that paid for their education. So, why not just go into the workforce fresh out of high school, or even attempt a trade school? Why not choose the cheapest route to education? What is the draw of a college education when students are becoming increasingly fearful they will not find employment and will spend the rest of their lives paying off the years they spent in college?

The question is complex, but the answer is certainly not! Just because a person cannot afford to buy a luxury car doesn’t mean they should be without transportation. Similarly, just because students can’t afford one school’s hefty price tag doesn’t mean they should forgo their education.

Just like cars come in a plethora of makes, models, sizes, and features to meet the needs of different customers, colleges and universities also have a plethora of features that add to its costs: size of the school, how many degrees it offers; whether it offers residential living; private versus public funding; geographic location; setting and environment; social scene/climate; entrance requirements; and on, and on. These features all add to the school’s costs and, thus, should be taken into account when today’s financial-conscious students explore their needs. So just as consumers shop around for cars in their price ranges, students will also want to shop around for schools in their price range.

Not the advertised, or the sticker price, however. This isn’t the $50,000 tuition you see in small print on the college’s website. The price I’m referring to – the price that most students pay – is the price you get after taking into account financial aid and other such resources. This price will be different for each student, as every student will have a different set of financial circumstances, resources, and contributions. So, while that liberal arts school may show a $50,000 price tag, student A may pay $25,000 out-of-pocket, student B may pay $10,000 out-of-pocket, and student C may pay $45,000 out-of-pocket, all because of their unique financial circumstances. And you won’t know the actual price tag for the school until you have applied, been accepted, and applied for financial aid, scholarships, etc.

So, is college worth it? I would not only say yes, but hell yes! When students take a look into the cost of college, they’ll find the actual price students pay to attend college is oftentimes lower (much lower, for some students) than the price that is advertised, and that actual price can be a lot more manageable for students and families to cover. So even when a school costs $50,000 to attend, students don’t usually pay that $50,000 price. In this CNN article, the president of Arizona State University agrees.

What’s more, students have options. If finances are a real concern, students can choose which schools to which they’ll apply. Students can spend two years at a community college, before enrolling in a four-year institution. Or, students can apply to state schools, which (on average) have lower costs than private schools. For, not every student will, or needs to, apply to that liberal arts school, costing $50,000.

Also, on average, the annual salary for those with a college degree can be up to $20,000 greater than the annual salary for those without a college degree. So going to college greatly increases students’ ability to make more money, over their lifetimes.

Finally, my experience and expertise tells me that college IS also worth it because of the totality of the college experience, which we’ll discuss later. Meaning, whatever that end value is, the college experience (if done right) can equip students with the skills companies look for in new employees (e.g. thinking critical, communicating effectively, displaying cultural sensitivities), which makes students more marketable job candidates, stronger workers, and more enriched, personally.

So is college worth it, may be the wrong question. Instead, the better question to ask may be: Given all of the benefits of the college experience, how can we make college more affordable? Not just for students from affluent backgrounds. But for everyone. Not just for students from certain heritages, lineages, or legacies. But for everyone. How can we ensure that every student who wants to go to college can afford it?

Now that’s a question really worth the debate.

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