When College Doesn’t Pay off

Previous generations of Americans were told to get a college degree because it was the path to financial success. Parents with high school diplomas encouraged their children to get bachelor’s degrees. College-educated parents expected their children to achieve at least the educational level of their parents-preferably higher. For the parents and grandparents of the current generation, college was a sure path to economic opportunity. The time has come, however, to ask if this premise is still valid.

A college education is not worth the cost under the following circumstances: you are not willing to study and take full advantage of your course work; you already know your calling or passion and can get a good start without a four-year degree; or, you will incur crippling student loan debt.

First, go to college with an educational purpose in mind. This is not to say you must know exactly what you want out of life, but you should know in which direction you are headed and what you need to study to help you along the way. 

For example, anyone wanting a career in the sciences certainly needs advanced math and other tools of the trade. A liberal arts education is good preparation for studying law. Professions such as engineering, nursing and pharmacy have specific educational requirements. 

If your goal, however, is simply to postpone adulthood and the decisions that entails, college is an expensive way to kill time. You would be better off finding a job and learning some responsibility and practical skills while you figure out your future.

Likewise, college can be an expensive waste of time if you have goals that can be started without a college degree. If you have an entrepreneurial bent and/or have someone willing to take you on as an apprentice, you may find it advantageous to start your career first; then go back to school when you are in a position to pay cash for your tuition. Your work experience will make your classwork more meaningful and the work habits you learned on the job will serve you well in college.

Finally, even if you are a dedicated student with intelligence and drive, no college education is worth the cost of massive student loan debt.  Americans who listen to Dave Ramsey’s radio program know how often callers seeking his financial advice admit to shocking amounts of student loan debt.  Many otherwise intelligent young adults borrow money to attend elite colleges and go into careers that almost guarantee they will not be able to repay their loans. It is not worth borrowing $100,000 for a bachelor’s degree.  If you are unwilling to attend community college, obtain credit-by-examination, or choose an affordable college, it is better to wait until you have saved enough money to pay cash for your tuition.

A college education is a privilege.  It is worth the planning and saving and sacrificing.  It is not, however worth crippling debt under any circumstances.  There is always a way for the intelligent and determined – Abraham Lincoln, for instance – to obtain an education.  Explore work-study, military service, or scholarships, but do not become a slave to debt and do not waste your time playing around on an expensive college campus.