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Why I Don’t Care if My Kids Go to College

We have three young girls, a 5 year old and 2.5 year old twins. Like most parents, we want them to have every opportunity to succeed in life. It’s conventional wisdom in most quarters that one of the essential steps on the road to success is earning a college degree.

That has been our perspective as well. And as everyone knows, college is expensive, and getting more so every year. So as soon as each girl was born we began putting money away in order to be able to pay for their education costs so they can focus intently on getting an education.

But, while I knew that their education would be expensive, I have to admit that I’ve never taken the time to figure out just how expensive. So last night I went on the Michigan Education Savings Program (“MESP”) website to find out.

The Lowdown on the Cost of College

A few facts to start. According to the MESP, the cost of tuition for a four year public university has risen over 225% over the last 30 years. For the 2015-16 school year, the average tuition cost for a four year public university is $9,410. By comparison, in 1971 (in today’s dollars) the cost was $429. Today, tuition at a private university costs $32,410. In 1971 (again, in today’s dollars) the cost was $1,832. Keep in mind that these costs do not reflect room and board.

To keep up with the staggering rise in tuition families borrow over $100 billion per year. Total student loan debt is over $1.2 trillion. That’s second only to mortgage debt in the U.S., and more than credit card and auto loan debt.

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And this debt is being racked up at a time when large number of college graduates are either unemployed or, more commonly, underemployed. Underemployment is when someone who is, for example, a college graduate, is working at an entry level position that doesn’t typically require a college degree. According to the Federal Reserve, the underemployment rate for recent college graduates – known colloquially as the “college graduate barista index” – in 2015 was almost 45 percent, which is 7 points higher than it was in 2000.

Incomes for young people keep shrinking as well. Since 2007, the median wage for people between the ages of 25-34, adjusted for inflation, has gone down in every major industry except health care.

Rising debt, falling wages, bleak job prospects – that’s a pretty toxic stew. And the system is starting to crack. In 2015, almost 7 million, or 17 percent, of all student loan borrowers were in default. These borrowers are saddled with this debt for life – they can’t use the bankruptcy process to dig themselves out because student loan debt is nondischargeable. 14 percent of all adults between the ages of 24 to 34 live with their parents. Billionaire businessman Mark Cuban believes that student loan debt is a bubble set to burst.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that so many college students are “feeling the Bern” and turning out in huge numbers in early state primaries and caucuses to support Bernie Sanders and his promise of free college for all (free for them, but not for taxpayers of course – but that’s another story).

Running the Numbers

So what will college cost when our girls head off to campus? MESP has a college cost calculator that allows you to plug in variables such as college of choice and rate of inflation in order to calculate future costs. I did a calculation for the twins who, presumably, will start college at the same time. The results weren’t pretty, and made me question why I’m writing this blog post instead of doing billable work for clients.

Assuming they both go to the University of Michigan, tuition, room and board for both of them for four years will cost, in total, $600,000. Here’s the kicker, though: I assumed only a six percent rise in costs every year – but historically costs have rise six percent more than the annual rate of inflation.

So, assuming a three percent inflation rate (a reasonable assumption), that would mean that the cost of college would increase nine percent per year. If that’s the case then we’ll be looking at a college tab of just shy of $1 million for the twins. That’s for four years. If it takes them five? Well, you do the math.

Now, don’t get me wrong, while these numbers rattled me a bit it doesn’t mean that we are going to close any doors of opportunity for the girls. Heather and I both attended college and our degrees – both under- and post-grad – have been important to our careers.

But it did get me thinking: Does the return on investment from a college degree justify the investment?

And I came to the equivocal conclusion: I’m not sure.

An Open Question

I’m not the only one questioning the value of college degree in today’s environment. The investment bank that everyone loves to hate, Goldman Sachs, recently ran the numbers. It found that the average return on the college investment is falling. According to USA Today, which reported on Goldman’s research:

“In 2010 students could expect to break even within eight years of finishing school. Since then, that has increased to nine years. And if this trend continues, students who start college in 2030 without scholarships or grants, [Goldman] said, may not see a return on investment until age 37.”

The twins won’t start college until 2031. Based on these numbers, they’re pretty much guaranteed a mid-life crisis, but they’ll be so broke that there won’t be any high priced sports car or boat purchases in their future to assuage the angst. Wait, that’s right, Heather and I are planning to pay for their college. Don’t start buying that cruise wear just yet, dear.

To College, Or Not to College?

So that all sounds pretty bleak, no? But of course it’s not that simple. The decision of whether to go to college or not is a complex one that cannot simply be reduced to a discussion of dollars and cents. We live in a society where credentials are still important, and some professions require a degree. College is also an opportunity to build a network of peers that can help open doors for a lifetime. And college years are formative ones where young adults can navigate their way through the options and experiences available on campus.

The question I have, though, is whether an 18 year old, whose life experience is limited to his or her experience in high school, is equipped to make such a complex decision? Some may have the maturity to understand and appreciate the tradeoffs and consequences of the decision. But many don’t.

In situations like this, rather than reflexively and uncritically going down the path of conventional wisdom (i.e., college) just because it’s the conventional one, I think it’s advisable for decision-makers (i.e., 18 year olds) to take a step back, take a deep breath, and get some perspective.

The decision really requires a two-part analysis. The first part is more quantitative: Does the return on investment justify the cost of college? The second part is more qualitative: Notwithstanding the cost, is spending four or five years (or more to obtain a post-grad degree) of life on campus going to get me closer to my dreams than an alternative? If, as may be the case for many, someone is not sure on either count, the best decision may be to defer the decision.

In other words, before committing to college, get out in the world a little bit. Ask questions. Challenge assumptions. Try new things. Learn what it’s like to earn money, and be responsible for bills. Be bold. Just because you don’t go to college right away doesn’t mean you can’t go later. But you can never un-ring the bell of college loan debt.

Here are a few of the issues I’m going to discuss with my girls when it comes time to consider this decision.

Do you know your path? I will ask them if they know their path. That is, do they know what they “want to be” when they grow up. If they do, I will challenge their assumptions, because how can a teenager really know?

For example, from a young age, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. So from the moment I stepped on campus as an undergrad I pursued a path toward law school. I attended law school, did well, and got a high paying job in Chicago with one of the largest and most prestigious law firms in the world. I also racked up about $100,000 in student loan debt.

It took about a month in the real world for me to realize that I didn’t want to be a lawyer. And I wasn’t alone – scores of my colleagues were miserable but needed to earn high incomes in order to service debt. And not just student loan debt, but debt incurred pursuing a lifestyle that they thought would help ameliorate the stresses of the profession – trapped by “golden handcuffs.”

Perhaps, instead of going down the path that I pursued, if I had worked an entry level job at a law firm as a clerk or paralegal I may have seen some of the warning signs that I could not see during seven years of higher education.

Who knows? The point is that I think it’s an issue worth discussing. I want my girls to broaden their horizons and make decisions about their future with eyes wide open.

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Credentials matter, but matter less over time. Regardless of what I tell them, by the time our girls turn 18 they will have been inundated with advice from other sources that the road to success in the working world runs through college. But I will discuss with them the fact that, while credentials matter, degrees matter, and grades matter, they will matter less the longer they are in the workforce. And they’re virtually irrelevant if they decide to pursue an entrepreneurial path.

I’ll freely stipulate that, among two young job candidates for a corporate position, the one with a college degree will have an advantage. In fact, the person without the degree may not even be eligible to apply. But this premise does not take into account the tradeoffs – primarily time and debt – that the degree holder has accepted to attain her “edge.”

A self-directed and self-motivated (yes, big assumptions) young person who, instead of attending college, entered the workforce, learned his craft, worked hard and impressed his superiors could, in four or five years, easily advance well beyond the entry level position that the degree holder is seeking. He could be the the interviewer, not the interviewee. Or, after getting a couple years of experience under his belt, he might decide to start his own business. Or maybe at that point he would decide to go to college, with more knowledge and perspective about what he wants to do with his education.

Moreover, with some exceptions, most employers don’t hire solely, or even primarily, based on educational pedigree. They’re interested in practical experience, results in the form of a track record of success and personality characteristics.

Finally, it’s important to remember that many people’s careers are completely unrelated to their college majors. According to a recent study 47 percent of college graduates did not find a first job related to their major, and 32 percent of degree holders have never worked in a field related to their major. When it comes to plotting a path to success, you must think laterally, not just vertically. Successful people pursue opportunities wherever they may be, they don’t just aimlessly climb the rungs of a single ladder. {tweet that}

Learning – Ostensibly the Primary Objective of College – Can Be Done Outside of the System. The internet has made the world of information flat. You can learn virtually anything online. Online courses are available from some of the world’s foremost experts in wide-ranging disciplines.

Want to learn how to code? Write and market a book? Start a business? Learn to sew? Study photography? Become a designer? The information, compiled by thought leaders in nearly every field imaginable, is out there, and available at a fraction of the cost of college.

I find it extremely ironic, and inconsistent with everything we learned in Econ 101, that college costs continue to skyrocket at a time when knowledge and information is more available – for free to a large extent – than it has ever been in human history. As supply goes up, costs are supposed to go down, but that’s not happening in the higher education marketplace.

Learning and education is not the exclusive domain of higher education institutions. Learning opportunities are all around us and developing a self-directed learning habit is something that will pay dividends for a lifetime.

Years You’ll Never Get Back. The point I really want to get across to my girls is that the years after high school should be ones of experimentation and enlightenment. Perhaps that’s best achieved on campus, but perhaps not. Perhaps they’d be better served joining AmeriCorps and helping those less fortunate. Or taking a trip of a lifetime to explore other countries and cultures. Or enlisting in the military and learning the value of discipline, hard work and service. Or completing an internship or apprenticeship with an expert or master craftsman. And perhaps, after maturing and growing through one or more of these experiences, they’ll decide to go to college, clear-eyed and ready to kick ass. I just want them to know that they won’t get these years back, so they better choose wisely.

So What’s the Point?

I want what is best for my girls. But I don’t want them making major life decisions for themselves based on someone else’s expectations for them. That’s because choices have consequences and life is about tradeoffs.

If we do our jobs, they’ll understand that college is an option for them, but not the only one. Part of our job, therefore, will be to expose them to as much as possible as kids – without overburdening them or us in the process – and noticing and nurturing their interests and talents. This will help them to have a better sense of what they like to do and what they’re good at, which are both important indicators of future success in an endeavor. The other part of our job is instilling in them the courage and self-confidence to follow their own path – be it one to college or not.

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  • Stephanie

    great thoughts!!! My husband and I have this conversation frequently…know your kids and help shape their future

  • Trevis

    curious on statistics on Community college for two years and then off to 4 year university…return on investment…maybe I should already know that?! interesting blog…

  • Caitlyn

    You sound like such an excellent parent! I think it’s great that you are open to the possibilities of what your daughters’ lives will look like. I was lucky to have the support of my parents, as well. But not going to college was not an option, and so I never even considered it. Not that they inflicted the choice on me, but society most certainly did in a way.

    And my whole life I wanted to be an architect, but when I was faced with what that meant in schooling, I most certainly was not prepared (also struggled with being a perfectionist) and changed my course and have floundered ever since.

    I wish I had taken a break. Somewhere along the way, at least. Now at 24 years old, I’m finding my way, but also finding that to get the job or career that I am truly interested in, my degree was necessary to get the foot in the door. However, it’s my activities outside of my education that have given me the practical skills. Actually from my blog more than anything.And they have given me the chance to explore.

    I think the best thing to encourage is that they cultivate some sort of passion outside of whatever education they choose. Or even within it! Or maybe education will be irrelevant for that initial “foot in the door.” But if they practice writing after class, or photography, or design, or cooking, or… whatever! Then I think they will find their way, as well. And you seem to be encouraging of that, so bravo!

    Unless they want to be a doctor or vet or lawyer… you know, the things where formal education is necessary (then their GPA should be number 1 plus networking), I think the creative passions pursued on an extracurricular level will become the greatest resource!

    But what do I really know? I’m only 24 🙂

    Happy to come across your blog!

    -Caitlyn
    http://www.catonthemoon.xyz