Ahh, the big college decision.
My own memory of this was jogged recently when I chatted with a high school senior choosing between two schools, one of which was my alma mater. I told her about my experience there (she was looking to play basketball, as I did) and we discussed countless details: distance from home, the coach, her future teammates, how fun the atmosphere is and so on.
After talking to her, my alma mater did seem like a good fit … until the very end of our conversation, when she dropped the following line:
“The only problem is that I’d probably come out with around $100,000 in debt.”
Then she quickly added: “But I feel like if I went to the other school and wasn’t happy, I would always regret not choosing this one, you know?”
While I could relate (I was far too worried about making the “wrong” choice when I went to school as well … and even transferred after my freshman year), I now recognize the danger of it.
Hey, hindsight is 20/20.
See, while we always talk about students struggling with college debt, what we don’t always consider is why so many students dig that hole to begin with.
While it’s sometimes the only way they can afford a college education, other students pay extra to attend a “dream school.”
But dream schools don’t exist … and such idealistic expectations for college is a huge part of the problem.
It’s an Investment
Cliche as it might sound, college is an investment. That education you buy is meant to provide returns … in the form of a job and paycheck.
Countless kids, though, see it as an experience — the supposed “best four years of your life” — and thus are willing to pay a premium for the best possible one. So the end choice often isn’t even centered on the investment, but perks like fancy facilities, sports, Greek life, where your friends are going and so on.
Even beyond that, many are more concerned with clout or reputation — how it sounds to attend Harvard vs. a state school — without really calculating whether that “better” education will pay off.
If you’re looking to become a teacher, for example, a respectable name will make for a good line on your resume and could help you stand out in a pile of applicants, but it won’t increase your starting salary at a public school, where pay is based on tenure and advanced degrees, and might not matter on future applications, where what you did at your job is more important than where you went to school. Don’t let ideals cloud that reality.
In the end, the cost is more important than the experience … and that should only be higher than it has to be if you’re definitely going to get something back on your additional investment.
Nothing Is Priceless
Consider my own personal experience: I graduated a year early thanks to some careful planning and a few extra classes. When I would talk about my goal, I was shocked at how many people — even adults — were not just surprised by my decision, but said it was the wrong one.
“You’re going to regret it,” they told me. “You have your whole life to be an adult!” “This is your last chance to play competitive basketball!” “College is the best time of your life!” “The real world sucks!”
But while college is great, it sure ain’t free … and I’m not buying that you can’t put a price on such an experience — even if it’s the perfect one of playing your favorite sport, being close to all your friends and not fully being on your own yet.
Real quick, let’s consider the cost of my last year of college:
For one, there’s the price of tuition — hardly cheap at my private liberal arts alma mater. But that’s just the beginning. We also must consider the opportunity cost: the salary I’ve made during the year I was supposed to be in college, the debt I’ve been able to pay down, the work experience I’ve gained and, of course, the extra money that work experience will add to my salary by the time I was originally supposed to graduate.
My fourth year — or the extra cost of any other supposedly perfect experience — definitely doesn’t come anywhere near such a price tag.
I chose to weigh the tangible cost over the intangibles, and I came out more than happy. I’ve still had countless amazing experiences outside the confines of my college bubble … while making money instead of paying it.
In the end, paying extra for perfection might not actually pay off. Your experience — whether at your dream school or one you’re settling for — will, for the most part, be what you make it.
Note: SoFi’s “Know Before You Owe” calculator is a great place to find out how your prospective debt will stack up with your career prospects.