“Pursuing high-quality postsecondary education is one of the most important investments a student can make, and is the surest path to the middle class in our country.” The U.S. Department of Education says so, therefore, it must be true. We think it’s true. Well, it’s probably true, right? What’s the alternative? NOT going to college? Too risky. But what if that statement makes assumptions about students that aren’t true?
The value of higher education, specifically a college degree, is such a hot topic that it’s almost too big to tackle – it’s the definition of a “multi-faceted problem.” Even if a person were able to pull together 100% of all evidence available and present it in a neat package- it’s all completely based on history. The best of the best can only retell us what has happened after it happened. We can track stats and data for college graduates. We can track stats and data for high school dropouts. But, no one has a crystal ball, therefore, I’m especially frustrated by the “value of higher education” propaganda because it’s based entirely on data from two decades ago and the economics of the Industrial revolution.
The Easy Sell
Our brains tend to simplify any problem. We like things cut and dry- so it’s easy enough for society to group high school teens into one of two categories:
There is such a universal group-think around this topic, that we are ignoring the data.
There is a false sense of calm when we choose (1) College-bound because we assume a college- bound pathway is the ticket to success! Furthermore, we assume that covering the cost of college is both an investment and a sacrifice we should be willing to make.
When we’re told that college is getting too expensive, that students are borrowing too much money, that graduates can’t get jobs in their major, or that only half those who enter college end up with a degree…. it’s just noise. It’s noise we can’t find our way through because option (2) is too scary. A good portion of parents I talk to would rather deal with the consequences later than face the uncertainty that comes from not sending their kids to college. The fear surrounding this decision is so great, that attending college (at any cost) is an easy sell.
Easy as Pie
There are only 3 ingredients in a pie crust. Flour, fat, and ice water. But the method of making pie crust has so many variables that there is an art and a science behind making a perfect flaky crust. Even if you had access to the perfect recipe, if you’re only making 7 pies per year you’re not experienced enough to make decisions about unexpected situations like high humidity in July or a change of altitude baking in Denver. Add in the question of flour brand, shortening vs butter, and a new oven….. ok, I’m wearing out the analogy, but I think you see where I’m going. The question of college value really has 3 ingredients:
- Price Paid for the Credential
- Degree / Major Obtained
- Aptitude & Ability of the Student
The mistakes happen when you only have one or two of the ingredients worked out. Often the flaw is in the price paid (overpaying) when matched for the degree/major and ability, but you can also go off-track in a few other significant ways.
Price Paid for the Credential
First things first, if your teen doesn’t graduate, they won’t have the credential and this entire section is moot. Getting into college isn’t nearly as hard as getting out – so as you calculate the price for your teen’s degree, be sure to calculate EVERYTHING. The whole price! Housing, meals, books, fees, transportation, and technology are just some of the costs in addition to tuition. I think it’s a huge mistake when parents calculate “per year tuition” and should instead calculate the price for the WHOLE credential. The following example is for a private 4-year university of average price.
- Average completion time of a 2-year degree is 3 years, so if your teen is earning a 2-year credential, your cost range should represent 2 years (low end) to 3 years (high end).
- Average completion time of a 4-year degree is 6 years, so if your teen is earning a 4-year credential, your cost range should represent 4 years (low end) to 6 years+ (high end).
If your student plans on attending full-time on campus, a parent should calculate the following:
$44,850 x 4 = $179,400 (low estimate)
$44,850 x 6 = $269,100 (average to high estimate)
Should you send your teen to this university? Should you pay $269k for a degree? That’s not the right question. The question of cost must be balanced against the other two ingredients: Degree/Major Obtained, and Ability & Aptitude of the Student.
Degree /Major Obtained
Here’s the cold truth: the cost of your degree doesn’t correlate with what you’ll earn after college. Whether you paid $5,000 or $100,000 or $500,000 for your degree, you’re still going to start your career as a new graduate earning a very predictable wage. You can look it up here. With small exception, an industry doesn’t care where you went to college – they only care what you can do on the job!
There are both good and bad examples of alumni from every college in the country, so don’t buy the myth that graduating from ABC University will make your teen a more-valued or well paid employee than the rest of the staff. The truth is that a brand name might help your teen land a job, but that advantage is lost once they start working – from there, their ability to hit performance standards and adapt to future industry changes will be the most important ingredients in their career success.
As you consider your target occupation and the degree / major needed to land that career, I’m of the opinion that if you want the freedom to follow your heart – then the amount you spend matters. As an example, if your passion is working for a non-profit social services organization and my passion is engineering – we should spend different amounts of money on our degrees if we want those choices to make sense. I would never try to dissuade someone from following their heart into an occupation because it “doesn’t pay well” but the degree / occupation you choose has to be balanced against what price you’ll pay for the credential and your teen’s aptitude and ability.
If you’re looking for a rule of thumb, look at the median salary of your teen’s target occupation (you can look it up here) and multiply that by 2. If their full educational experience (undergraduate and or graduate degree, license, registration, certifications) exceeds that number, you might be overspending. Those who can manage an educational experience LESS THAN their target occupation’s median salary are on the right track.
It should go without saying, but it’s really important to make sure that the degree / major is the correct one for the occupation your teen wants. Nutrition degrees don’t qualify you to work as a Registered Dietitian, a degree in science doesn’t qualify you to teach science, and a degree in psychology does not qualify you to practice psychology. You’ll need to do your research independently away from a college’s
propaganda website. You can look it up here.
Aptitude & Ability of the Student
It doesn’t matter what college your teen attends or what major they declare if they don’t graduate! People often justify their hefty price tag by quoting salary expectations or will choose a major based on career potential, but if your teen doesn’t finish the degree, then we’re back to square one- but with debt. No one pays extra wages to an employee with “half” of a nursing or engineering degree. Getting into college isn’t as hard as getting out, so first things first: proof of concept.
A major advantage of earning college credit in high school is that your teen is working through the growing pains of doing college level work. Professors are not family- they don’t love your kids. They can be stubborn, closed-minded, punitive, unresponsive, and unconcerned with your teen’s success. They can also be busy and uninterested in your teen’s objections. When this happens during the homeschooling process, a parent can assist with a reality check. You can help your teen develop thick skin and a little extra gumption. This will serve them well in future classes.
This is where you have an opportunity to run your proof of concept. In business-speak, this is a way to “test out” a product to see if people like it. But beyond liking it, will they buy it? As an example, a restaurant tries a new menu item at one location before investing in new branding and equipment to roll out the menu item across all 500 locations. When you Homeschool for College Credit, you’re testing your proof of concept. You think your teen might be ready for college classes, so before you pay full price tuition, you “test out” the concept by letting them take a few dual enrollment courses online. Perhaps you take it one step further and your teen earns their associate degree (at low cost) before transferring to their (expensive) dream school for the last two years. These tests allow your teen to accumulate credit in a way that generates gains but is relatively low-risk.
30% of college drop outs do so during freshman year (first 30 college credits)
A really unexpected lesson I learned by Homeschooling for College Credit, was that one of my sons wasn’t especially motivated to do his schoolwork. Now, if I’m being transparent, I already knew this. But, I managed the situation in my homeschool by parenting him through it. Despite him meeting my expectations (getting it done, doing the work, get a passing grade) as soon as he started college classes on his own, it was immediately apparent that he wasn’t interested in his classes. Several bad grades and unopened textbooks later, he withdrew. He wasn’t ready.
I was fortunate that this didn’t cost us $20,000 – instead it just cost a bruised ego (mine) and a some feelings of frustration and failure that we had to work through later.
Another of our sons has been laser-focus-driven in his career occupation since middle school. I just set up his classes and stay out of the way. He earns high grades and is highly motivated.
In both of my cases, I haven’t told you the cost of their program or their target occupations. Does it matter? You can’t ignore your teen’s role in their own success or failure!!
My kids don’t read my blog, but it’s unfair if I don’t also share that the same son in my story above went on to graduate from a technical school with perfect attendance, high honors, and a few awards – all without my help when he was ready.
The Best Value
It’s never just one thing. Yes, you can get a liberal arts degree for $7,000 but without an occupational plan and a lot of motivation, that’s probably not going to be a good recipe. You can spend $50,000 on a two-year degree that lands your teen a six-figure job. What your pie-recipe looks like and how you divide it should reflect a pathway toward success. Finally, many of you have exceptionally motivated teens who will start a business or find a unique way to use their gifts that doesn’t include college at all!
The best educational plan is a mix of paying a good price for the credential they need in an occupation they love with the kid you already have.