Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Is College Worth It?

Peanut's first year of Kindergarten is coming to an end soon. Another school year behind her, if you include daycare. Twelve more years to go. So many things still to come. So many more milestones and memories. Firsts and lasts. Yet, there's something else that keeps popping up in the back of my mind. It's nagging me like a piece of prosciutto stuck in my tooth. I'm worried about college. Yes, college. Specifically, paying for college It's something every parent thinks about, worries about, frets over, from almost the moment of conception. Now that Peanut's actual education is underway, I feel the savings clock is ticking. And it frightens the hell out of me.

A recent study by Fidelity Investments shows most families fall far short - not even 25% - of the money it takes to pay for their child's college education. It shows parents don't do enough to save for college, or they wait too long. I must admit that My Director and I are in the same boat. More than six years into our daughter's life, we haven't put away nearly as much as we would have hoped, or thought we would have by now. Things always come up. Bills, debt, home improvements, illnesses, job changes, a life-saving surgery for our dog. Even vacations, because sometimes you have to actually enjoy life. So the issue isn't as clear cut as the black-and-white facts and figures of a study. 

Another aspect of note from that Fidelity report is that a lot of parents misjudge  how much college costs. Personally, I don't know how that is even possible. News flash, people: it's expensive. According to College Board, the average tuition alone at a four-year private school is $28,500 a year. That seems very LOW to me. Then you factor in room and board and it's probably pushing $40,000 at least. 

When Peanut started Kindergarten, we were greeted with a new monthly financial windfall: no more daycare payment. Good child care comes with a cost, and while we loved where we sent our daughter the past four years, we were relieved to be free of that bill. After factoring in some other budget adjustments, part of that money was supposed to go towards college. It didn't. It went towards some home improvements and a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe this summer for our tenth anniversary. (Because sometimes you actually have to enjoy life.) So barring the serendipitous appearance by an anonymous benefactor (we're taking offers if you're reading), we're once again in the same boat as the people mentioned in the study I referenced above.

When I stop asking myself how we're going to pay for it, I start asking, "Is college worth it?" On the surface, from a pure financial investment, I say, unequivocally, no. It's hard for me to justify a $200,000 four-year expenditure (rounding up) that barring some good fortune that rains riches upon our family, will certainly put us further into debt. Peanut will likely be graduating with a degree in a field where it will be difficult to find a job and be saddled with a mountain of her own debt. More than half of college graduates now leave school an average of $25,250 in debt, according to the Institute for College Access & Success.

This "investment" goes against every basic accounting and budgeting philosophy I follow. It's simple. You don't spend what you don't have. When you consider consolidations, delays, grace periods, graduate schools, and rollovers, My Director and I are still paying off our college loans. (Class of 1997 right here, hello.) You'll have a hard time convincing me that sending Peanut to a university to study art history or English literature is worth that kind of money.

Truth be told, we'll probably end up sending her to her first choice when the time comes, assuming she gets in and assuming she wants to go. Why? Because I am the keeper of my daughter's dreams. And if her dream is to go to a certain college, then as long as she has earned it I will do all I can to make that happen. It could change her life like it changed mine and my wife's. Our parents did all they could to send us to our first choice. A private out-of-state school that we're still paying for. Don't we owe it to our daughter and our parents to do the same? Some would site all of the numbers I outlined above and argue no. There are days I am one of them. So I get it.

Then I take a deep breath, relax, eat a cookie and realize there are always ways to pay for these things. I'm not sure how we're going to do it. But we'll figure it out somehow. Some way. There's always a way. College, to me, is much more than an academic experience. It's a social and spiritual journey as well. Had it not been for college, I never would have met My Director. I wrote about the serious of unfortunate events that led to our meeting HERE.

A version of this post first tited "The Cost of Higher Education" appeared around this time last year on Barista Kids.


  1. Amen! I did a little research on college costs myself over the weekend for an entirely different post and the costs are staggering. We have three girls and will have 2 in at a time to at least 3 years. We have started saving, but it doesn't seem like much so far. Like you said, though, we will figure out a way!

  2. We talk to our girls about good grades equal more scholarships to help pay for college. We only have 2 girls and they will both be in college at the same time for only 1 year....but it's still seems totally overwhelming.....


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