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Soaring College Expenses and Often-Paltry Wages Don’t Add Up

Some majors are bad 'investments' for college students


college tuition costsCollege expenses and tuition costs continue to spiral upwards. It’s not just elite private schools like Harvard that are pricey. In-state tuition at a public school is up another 5.4% this year on top of previous college expenses increasing.

That’s about $1,100 more than 2010, pushing college expenses at a four-year public school to $21,447 according the College Board. But as you wonder how to pay for tuition, consider that many students pay much more than that figure. The College Board also estimates that about 28% of full-time students at private, nonprofit four-year colleges pay $36,000 or more yearly in tuition and fees!

Those college expenses are enough for a brand new, fully loaded Toyota Prius. EVERY YEAR.

That should make all prospective students think twice about how to pay for tuition, how much you are willing to spend on college expenses — and what you’ll be giving up in pursuit of your diploma.

College Expenses Are an Investment

One would think with the rising cost of tuition that the payback from college would be bigger than ever. After all, you hear all these stats about how little someone earns without a college degree and how important higher education is. So the payback for your college expenses should be clear, right?

That depends. A host of majors are horrible “investments.” You’d be better off heading straight into the workforce as a retail manager or waitstaff in many cases instead of shouldering these high college expenses.

college tuition and salary level
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Consider that a recent Georgetown University report called “What’s It Worth?” shows the value of a college diploma for some students. Engineering degrees clean up, with most netting grads a median salary of $80,000 and up — with the tops being $120,000 annually for a petroleum engineer working for the energy industry. (Get a full breakdown of the starting salaries by college major in the graphic at right.)

But of course we all can’t be engineers, even if we figure out how to pay for tuition and college expenses within our family budget.

Depressingly, the lowest median salaries are for some of the most noble professions (at least, to many Americans with a conscience). Counseling psychology is the paltriest-paying major, with a median pay of just of $29,000. In case you’re curious, the poverty threshold according to the U.S. Census Bureau was $26,675 in 2010. So much for college expenses paying off as an investment there!

Early childhood education isn’t much better at $36,000 annually, and theology and religious vocations net just $38,000.

All three of those are less than drama and the performing arts, which averages $40,000 a year.

Even if these grads can figure out how to pay for tuition, how can they shoulder more than $80,000 in student loan debt and college expenses and keep their head above water with a salary of less than $40,000 a year? Is it fair to charge the same amount for college diplomas that can deliver annual pay almost $100,000 apart? Do we need to do a better job subsidizing college or reducing costs?

Questions Before “How to Pay for Tuition”

Those questions raise plenty of other tough issues — not the least of which is how to tackle the broader unemployment concerns that have hit the entire U.S. economy, depressing wages and hurting job prospects for workers of all experience levels.

But it’s worth thinking about, as a nation, how important a college education is. Many folks have begun to sound the alarm on spiraling tuition costs. Some bold and creative thinkers have succeeded without a degree at all — Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerburg to name three — and investors like James Altucher continue to question if college really makes you smarter and more prepared for the workforce.

Most disturbing is that one-third of students attending a four-year college drop out without earning a bachelor’s degree, meaning they shoulder the cost of a new Prius or more via college expenses without ever gaining entry into those higher-income brackets.

These folks assuredly would have been better off investing in something else, even if they had an easy answer on how to pay for tuition at these ever-increasing rates.

One option is to try entry-level work in your desired field that doesn’t require a diploma. That way you can find out if it’s right for you while earning some money. Another is for students to test out a class or two part-time to see if college is what they expected or to determine if they’re up to the task. And let’s not forget the “value” that community colleges can provide through discounted tuition and lower college expenses while you live at home, instead of living in more glamorous but pricey dorms.

Considering America’s difficult economic environment and competitive job market, teenagers and their parents need to think about college expenses as an investment. Finding a job that makes you happy and learning about your talents is important, yes.

But not starving is pretty important, too.

Jeff Reeves is the editor of Write him at, follow him on Twitter via @JeffReevesIP and become a fan of InvestorPlace on Facebook.

Article printed from InvestorPlace Media,

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