There is a lot of talk about college affordability and rightfully so, as the sticker prices of higher education have gotten pretty out of hand.
But we cannot overlook the fact that whether or not a college is “expensive” depends on more than just the absolute price you pay. It depends on the future earning power it affords you, and that is what determines whether or not it is “worth it.”
College “affordability” is relative, not absolute
We have to stop evaluating college options based on their price; we should look at their value to you and their worth on the job market instead.
For example, if you know spending $1 will make you $2 guaranteed, wouldn’t you invest all the money you have into this? On the other hand, if you know spending $1 will only make you $0.75, would you still invest? Even though it’s “only” $1, you’d be crazy to.
Now if spending $10,000 can guarantee you $20,000, even though the initial $10k is not chump change for many people, wouldn’t you still take the deal?
The lesson: the price tag itself doesn’t tell you if something is “worth it” or not. It’s what you get in return for the amount you spend initially. Keep this in mind when you’re choosing a college, choosing a major, or even choosing how to spend your time in general. College is a tool, not an end result, so choose the option that gets you closer to your end goal most effectively (i.e. faster, further, and/or cost-effectively).
How to identify which colleges are “worth it”
That said, now that you know to look for colleges that are “worth it,” how do you find those colleges?
First off, ignore vanity metrics. Remember what you’re there for and start backwards.
Go on LinkedIn and find the profiles of people in the profession you want to get into. Reverse engineer that and figure out what types of educational training and work experiences those people have in common. That is how you figure out which universities and (just as importantly) which programs to apply for. Those are the ones that will be “worth it” (i.e. help you get into the career you want to get into).
Don’t leave it up to guesswork or assume that the “reputation” of a university will automatically get you the job you want. 44% of recent graduates found out otherwise the hard way.
How to afford those schools
Now that you found those schools, how do you afford them? How do you pay for college if your family is too rich for adequate financial aid but not rich enough to pay for college?
You either 1) find a way to acquire those funds, or 2) find colleges that are more affordable (in terms of the actual total amount you have to pay).
Acquiring the funds can include any combination of developing income streams (working part-time, starting an online business, etc.), getting “free” money (merit scholarships), or borrowing money (ideally from family and friends; from the government only if absolutely necessary).
Also, keep in mind that just like there is a significant difference between just showing up for the SAT and actually doing well, there is a big difference between merely submitting your financial aid forms versus keeping your family’s money in the right assets (note: not every dollar is weighted equally in calculating your demonstrated need and expected family contribution) to maximize the amount of financial aid you are offered by each college. This is something YOU have to take ownership of. DO NOT rely on colleges’ financial aid offices (or many college admission coaching services who only care about getting you accepted to college) to look out for your needs. Remember that they are working on the universities’ behalf (think: who pays their salaries?), not yours.
When evaluating college options, the most important issue is to think in terms of your future expected earning power a particular degree program will give you, compared to the money and time you will have to invest to get that degree.
It doesn’t matter how “affordable” a college is. If it won’t provide you with adequate earning potential afterwards, it’s not worth it.
It also doesn’t matter (to a certain extent) how expensive a college is. If you’re graduating from a program there that will put you in a high-paying career that will make you completely forget about how expensive your degree was, then it’s totally worth it.
Do the research yourself (don’t rely solely on college admission coaching services) to figure out if a program will actually help get you closer to your desired career; don’t assume the prestige of a university will automatically get you a job.
There are lots of ways to finance your college education. Don’t leave your financial aid application up to chance.
Think in terms of value, not price.