Lord of the Flies

by William Golding

The Hired Girl

Laura Amy Schlitz

Is that college degree worth it? Read this, then write the check.

Is that college degree worth it? Read this, then write the check.

Is that college degree worth it? If you look behind the name and choose the school that's right for you...maybe.Is a college degree worth it? Don’t answer that. Not if you’re about to dive into the college admissions piranha tank.

Pretend that you haven’t fallen for the hype. Pretend you haven’t been seduced into believing that Awesome U. is your ticket to the show. Take a deep, calming breath.

And we'll answer the question for you:

Yes, a college degree is worth it. If you pay the right price, pick the right major, and can’t think of something better to do.  Let's take those one at a time.

Is a college degree worth it? If you pay the right price, maybe.

You’ve blocked out those dreamscapes of autumnal elms and Hogwartian quadrangles. You’re clear-headed enough to understand that any college is a business. A business selling something. To you. For a price. Is the price right? That depends.

college loan debt calculatorThink of it this way. One person spends $135,000 on a Porsche. Another buys a used Honda. Both get to the next stop light at about the same time. Unless Mr. Convertible blasts past the speed limit and gets pulled over by the cop while Ms. Honda sails on by.

The point: Some colleges, like some cars, are luxury items selling for a luxury price. Nice if you have the cash. Not necessary to get you where you want to go.

If you must borrow to pay tuition, don’t borrow more than you should. An expensive college won’t make you more successful in life. An expensive college won’t help you to make more money. An expensive college will just leave you with more loans to pay.

Really.

Want proof? In the late 1990s, two economists decided to find out whether graduates of Ivy League and Ivy League-level institutions earned higher salaries than everybody else. Here’s what they found: Yes, elite college graduates earned more money than most people. But they did not earn more than college graduates who had been accepted to those elite institutions, but who chose to attend less prestigious institutions. In other words, the economists found that a graduate from Stanford, for example, wouldn't earn more than a graduate from, say, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, if that state-school grad had been accepted to Stanford in the first place.

But those two economists didn’t stop there. They spent the next decade scrutinizing elite college admissions data, and then made a more startling discovery: They found that high school seniors who had been rejected from elite colleges but achieved SAT scores similar to those who had been admitted to those top-tier schools commanded the same salaries as those who had graduated from the Ivy League and Ivy League-type institutions.

In other words, it’s not about where you go to college. It’s what you do with your talents and abilities—no matter where you end up. Which brings us to the second fact you need to know before you send in those college applications.

Is a college degree worth it? If you choose the right major, possibly.

There’s an emerging conventional wisdom and it goes something like this: Biomedical engineers make more than high school English teachers. But colleges charge English majors the same tuition they charge biomedical engineering majors. So anyone with half a brain should major in biomedical engineering.

You don't need to be a fortune-teller to see the job market's future. Heed that advice at your own risk. Sure, science and engineering major graduates are in short supply and high demand. But not everyone is cut out to be a STEM major. The world needs more than just scientists and engineers. And, if you believe business hiring surveys like this, college graduates who can think and communicate are also in short supply and high demand.

So what’s the “right” major? It's the one that’s going to help you get you where you want to go in life. So try to identify it before you send in your deposit money. Remember, a college is a business. Would you buy something from a business if you didn't know what you’d do with it?

If you don't have a clue here, don't despair. Try this exercise. It’s 2033, and you’re reading the Wikipedia entry about your amazing life. What does it say you’re doing? Now walk your way back from that point in 2033 to this day in 2013. How did you get to there from here? What was your major in college? That could be the “right” major for you. 

Once you've figured out the "right" price and the "right" major, you'll find you're better informed than most of your classmates. You'll also be ready to ask yourself the big question: Is college right for you?

Is a college degree worth it? For the right price and with the right major, probably. But...

Here's the advice financial planners give when you ask them whether you can "afford" college: They'll tell you to look up the earnings estimate of your intended career, then punch some numbers into a calculator like this to find out whether you’ll be able to pay your college loans. They'll say that if you can pay the loan installments, you can afford college.

They're right about one thing: You don’t want to incur a debt that you can’t handle. But they're overlooking something else.

You might not want to incur any debt at all. You might want to take the money you were planning to invest in college and invest it in something else. Like a business. You might be able to pay for college, but you might not choose to afford it because you see a different, and better, opportunity.

Mark Zuckerberg Kobby Dagan / Shutterstock

Your life’s dream might not require a college degree. You don’t have to be Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates to foreswear the privilege of a college degree in exchange for commercial success. But here's Wikipedia's list of college dropouts who became billionaires, just in case you're inclined to aim high.

As big companies streamline, trim overhead, seek labor-saving efficiency, our society finds itself relying on entrepreneurs to drive economic growth. At some point, you may discover that a college degree isn't as valuable as it used to be. No one knows for sure. But it’s something to consider.

When you've paid your college tuition, you’ve made an investment. An investment in time and cash. Before you make that investment, make sure you have some idea about the return you're likely to get.

Then make sure you’re happy with it.

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