Choosing the right college and the right major is one of the most important decisions your kids will ever make. That’s why you’ve got to be part of the decision. (That’s right. If you’re shelling out $50,000 to $300,000 for a 4 year degree, you get a few votes too.) Remember, there is more at stake than the student’s career and life path. You don’t want your kid saddled with debt of course. But you also have to consider how that bloated expense is going to impact you if you are the one writing the checks or taking on the debt (heaven forbid).
Many parents and students fail to understand this and it can ruin – yes ruin – lives. That’s why I’m so passionate about this topic. What happens if you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars you don’t have only to learn that your son studied something that no employer cares about? Awkward. This is to say nothing about all the bad financial lessons most college kids learn unless their parents are really actively engaged.
In the past, I’ve railed against pricey schools and I still feel that the exaggerated cost of snooty schools is rarely worth it. But there are cases when it makes sense to spend more than you absolutely have to in order to get a degree.
After getting a few thought-provoking emails, having a long conversation with my daughter who recently graduated and doing some research of my own, I’ve determined that there are three questions you need to answer if you and your student want to pick the perfect school and major. The trick is, not everyone has the same priorities and constraints. As a result, you have to decide how important each of the following is in your particular situation. Let’s get started. School’s in session.
1. Will the degree help my kid become financially independent?
If you have limited resources, this question has to number 1. When I went to college, I had almost no money and very little support. As a result, my goals were very clear:
- Graduate in 4 years.
- Study something that would make me super-employable.
- Spend the least amount of money possible achieving my goals.
I honestly didn’t care about anything else so I studied accounting (to increase my odds of getting a job) at a state college that I could afford. For me it worked out great.
If financial security is your child’s number one priority and you aren’t swimming in a pool of cash, have her study something in high demand like engineering, math, science, computers or finance and don’t worry sending the kids to an elite school – studies show it ain’t worth it.
You’ll read reports that say graduates from elite schools earn more but don’t draw the wrong conclusion. Those grads earn more because they have skills they developed long before they even set foot on campus.
If your child has what it takes to get into one of those schools, she’ll make just as much money as they will regardless of where they go to school. And this isn’t just my opinion. It was researched and verified by Economists Alan Kruerger and Stacey Dale.
2. Does the school provide a good education and experience?
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the quality of a college education improves as the price tag gets bigger. The components of a good education are subjective of course. But they include:
- The student – faculty ratio.
- The location.
- Number of students on campus.
- Size of campus.
- Majors offered.
- Class Size
- Housing Options and Cost.
- Recreational and academic facilities
You have to define what “a good college experience and education” is to you and your child and then find out if the school you are considering fits the bill or not.
3. Does the school have snob appeal?
Very few people will admit it but many send their children to expensive schools for bragging rights. Let me prove this to you.
A few years ago, my neighbor discovered that her child was accepted at an elite (costly) East Coast school. She immediately ran over to our house and told us how her daughter got into this “great school” at a cost of more than $60,000 a year. I congratulated her and wished her the best.
What I wanted to do however was ask her why she thought so highly of the school. I doubt she could have backed up her opinion up with facts. Ask someone why they think Harvard or Princeton is great. Chances are high they won’t be able to provide any data. But they think Ivy League schools are good (often subconsciously) for three reasons:
- They are expensive.
- Smart and successful people graduated from them.
- Everyone else thinks so.
But as I said, the facts show that a skilled student who has what it takes can be just as successful no matter where she goes to college. And they can have a great experience at competing schools at a lower cost too. The truth is, people pay more for premium brands because it makes them feel good – not because the product is better necessarily. I do this. You do this. We all do this.
This is marketing 101 and it’s in everything you buy from the food you eat to the car you drive to the school your children attend. I have no problem giving in to this marketing ploy when it comes to the socks I buy. But when money is limited and there are hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake, we have to neutralize that impulse.
On the other hand, if you can really afford this indulgence go for it. Just don’t kid yourself into thinking that your student is getting a competitive advantage in the workplace or buying a better experience. It probably isn’t the case.
To be fair, there are a few other unique cases where going to an expensive Ivy League college is smart. Let’s say your student is planning on going to medical or law school after college. In that case it may help them get into a better post-grad institution if they attend a name brand college. There are one or two other good reasons to spend that extra bread but they are few and far between.
Bottom line? Think about what’s most important to you and your child about college before you both pick the school and degree program. If the main goal is to get a degree that will set the student up for professional success, just skip the Ivy Leagues. If the experience is what you‘re after, I’ve got the same answer for you. If you are looking for snob appeal and money is no object the high-priced Ivy League schools are fine.
Are there other considerations? What are they?