Is College Worth It? Should You or Your Kid Go to College?

Simple Takeaway:

You should go to college if the things you want to do in life require a college degree instead of work experience and you’re able to pay cash for classes. Otherwise, find another route.

If you’ve looked at the cost of college tuition lately (which is typically around $10,000 and up per year), you might be asking yourself, “Should my kid go to college? Is college worth it?“

According to several studies, nearly 90% of high school graduates say they want to go to college of some sort after high school, yet only about half of high school graduates say they feel prepared to go to college or begin a career.

Of the large majority of high school seniors who say they want to go to college, about half of them enter college without knowing what they want to major in – without knowing what they want to do with that college degree – and around 75% of them change their major before they graduate college.

In other words, the majority of high school graduates want to go to college, yet the majority of them don’t know why.

Maybe that’s why over 70% of college graduates work in a field unrelated to their major, and approximately one third of college graduates work in a field that doesn’t require a college degree. That’s a lot of time and money wasted. (Here’s one source, another source, and one more source.)

Most people rush blindly into college without even considering the consequences of going to college without having some sort of direction. For our culture, college has become a four year long rite of passage. It’s as if we feel as though we should be able to celebrate and have a pre-adulthood party in college because, well, that’s what everyone else does

The phrase “college dropout” has become a bad word in America. We look down on people who are college dropouts and think less of people who skipped college altogether. 

We’ve created a social structure where 17 and 18 year old kids feel pressured by society to go to college so they can be successful, then statistically over 60% of them will go into debt in the form of student loans. Then, nearly half of all college students will drop out before graduating. Source Source

This is a problem.

So we’ve got a huge number of kids going to college blindly, a huge number of kids taking out loans to do so, and then a huge number of kids not even finishing college and walking away with nothing but thousands of dollars in debt. And it’s not just a few thousand, either. The average amount of student loan debt owed is just under $30,000.

So instead of having a system that’s built to equip kids to enter the workforce in a productive way, we actually send them the opposite direction by putting them in a position to take on loads of debt.

What’s even worse is, we incentivize students to stay in school and continue going into debt by telling them that they shouldn’t drop out because then their student loan payments will kick in or by telling them that if they drop out they will lose scholarship money and have to repay it. There’s very much a fear-based mentality around college that says if you don’t go to college you’re a failure, and if you drop out you’ll have to work a dead end job and be broke.

College is expected in America, and if you haven’t figured it out yet, college is a business where plenty of people make plenty of money by students blindly going to college and blindly signing their life away financially before they’re old enough to even know what they’re doing.

Too many kids end up in their mid 20s with over $20,000 in student loan debt without even feeling bad about it. They become numb to the idea that student loan debt is dumb because everyone they know is doing it and all of their teachers teach them how to do it. 

As a result, student loans feel like monopoly money to them. The magnitude of what they’ve done doesn’t sink in until they have families of their own and they’re trying to keep everything afloat while student loans expect hundreds of dollars a month from them. Then they figure out far too late that college can be a disastrous waste of time and money if you don’t know what you’re doing.

But we shouldn’t be altogether against college. College started out as a good thing and at its core it still can be a good thing. For certain career paths, college is absolutely necessary to get the additional training needed to be able to operate at the level at which the job market needs.

For example, if you want to be an engineer, you probably don’t want to go out and teach yourself that. Most people would like to know that you got some sort of formal education before you start designing, inspecting, and building bridges that people are going to drive across.

We usually also like to know that whoever is operating on a family member’s heart or brain spent a significant amount of time in college learning how to do that in a very meticulous way. I certainly hope they didn’t teach themselves and I certainly hope they didn’t learn online.

So in very technical or high-expertise career fields, college is great. The problem is when over 1/3 of college majors in four-year institutions are in things like business, communication, and arts And over 2/3 of majors at two-year colleges are in liberal arts, general studies, and humanities.

In other words, a huge chunk of money, time, and energy is being spent on college degrees that aren’t necessary. That doesn’t mean they’re not helpful, but they’re not necessary to work in fields like business, arts, and humanities.

But, as a parent, you know that most high school graduates want the college experience. Many of them understand that it’s a social pressure thing, but they want to do it anyway. Either way, if your kid is considering degree programs and wondering if they have to go to college or if it’s worth the money spent, here are a few questions to ask:

What do they actually want to do with their life?

This seems like an obvious question, and I know they probably don’t know the answer to it yet, but this has to be the starting point. Too many people start by asking which college they should go to or where they should live or whether or not they qualify for federal aid. These are all great questions, but none of them make any sense if they’re not starting from a place of honestly asking themselves what they actually want to do when all of that stuff is gone.

It’s important to remind them that they’re on this earth to serve. God put them here for a purpose and that purpose is to know and serve him as their father and to know and serve other people in their family and community. That’s why everything we do drives us towards service. 

Harvard University conducted a nearly 80 year old study to try to figure out what led to healthier and happier lives, and they found that the keys to health and happiness are relationships and community.

Therefore, the purpose of college is for us to find a career where we’re best serving other people. This is important because you’ll need to reframe the way your kid sees “what they’re supposed to do with their life“. Because, very simply, they’re here to serve, and they’ll only be fulfilled when they’re serving. So when your helping your kid discover their “purpose,” what they should be looking for is:

  1. What are they good at?
  2. What do they enjoy doing?
  3. What do they find important?
  4. What do people need?

Write down the first three on a sheet of paper, then make a list, then write a list of careers where all three of those intersect. Once you have a list of careers where those intersect, then ask yourself, do people need this? Chances are, the answer will almost always be yes if it’s a viable career field where people are working and making money currently, but it’s important to run each of the careers on your list by that test so you don’t end up down a rabbit hole with something that’s just a good idea but doesn’t actually pay any money.

Do the careers you’ve discovered require a college degree?

Do the careers you’ve discovered require a college degree? If so, what kind of degree? An associates degree or a bachelors degree? Do they require a graduate degree? Do they even need a degree at all or can they substitute experience for a degree?

The quickest way to learn about how to get into a career field is to start reaching out to professionals in the industries you’ve identified and ask them what they would do if they could go back knowing what they know now. When people don’t have something to gain by giving you advice, they’ll give you the most truthful and helpful advice. So ask people who actually are doing the jobs your kid wants to do.

Once you’ve genuinely, honestly, and thoroughly, identified whether or not a college degree is necessary for some of the potential career options you’ve identified, then it’s time to move on to the third consideration.

What are the next steps they can take without debt?

Whether you’ve discovered that your kid will need college or not, the next step is to identify what they can do without debt.

Student loan debt may be normalized in America, but it’s becoming a huge problem and it will cripple your adult life. Student loan debt is now the second largest type of consumer debt category in America second only to mortgages.

So if they don’t need a college degree, then what apprenticeships and part-time jobs can they take, or where can they volunteer, to start racking up as much experience as possible? Maybe they need to live with you to save money. Don’t worry about them being free adults when they’re 19 years old and trying to get through college debt-free. They’ll have all their life to be independent. Let them take advantage of the shelters they have in place that are there to help them spread their wings and fly. 

But do have them start looking everywhere aggressively – making phone calls and writing emails and even dropping by business offices if they have to – asking people if they can apprentice, volunteer, or work for next to nothing just so they can learn. That’s the best way for them to figure out what they want to do and it’s the best way to get a jumpstart on their career.

If you’ve determined that your kid does need a college degree, then start looking at what it would look like for them to work full-time at a restaurant or some other position where they can make decent money, particularly tip money, for about a year or so before going into school. If they’re in high school, then start seeing what they can do to make some extra money now and then see if their college will let them do a payment plan for their first couple of semesters. They usually will, then they’ll have the summer to work their butt off to get money for the next round of payment plans. 

The smartest thing to do here is to flat out save up cash. A year of their life will feel like a lifetime they might feel like a loser, but the truth is, their being weird now so that they can be free from debt and the depression and anxiety that it brings on, and they’ll be the weird one who’s financially stable when their other friends get out of college making less than them and owing 30 grand in student loans.

The ideal scenario would be for them to get a job doing something even remotely close to one of the careers you’ve identified above. Then, they have a year to get experience related to a field they like, and by the time they go to school, they cash flow it and have a year of experience under their belt. Future employers will be thoroughly impressed by that.

So if you’re wondering, “Should my kid go to college and is college worth it?“ The answer is: it depends. 

It depends on what they want to do with their life, whether or not the things they want to do require a formal education in today’s day and age, and whether or not you/they have the cash to make it happen now. 

Remind them to be patient. Their life feels like every moment needs to be seized and that to do that they should go to college immediately so their dreams don’t slip away. But assure them that all of their dreams will still be waiting for them in a year or two once they get a little experience, cash, and perspective about how they can actually serve this world rather than going to school because they feel like that’s what they should do to be socially accepted.

Remind them to not be afraid to be different. Patience is unique, and it’s almost always the diligent and prudent who serve the world best and ultimately end up being the most fulfilled.