To College or Not to College – the Million Dollar Question

As soon as my parents had children they started saving every penny they could to pay for our college education.  They both went to private liberal arts schools and they wanted us to be able to do the same, and to go to the best schools we could get into.  They believed strongly in the importance of a college education, and to a large extent their lives were geared towards giving their children this opportunity.  No going out to eat, no expensive vacations, no new cars.  Save, save, save.  College is what mattered.

My sister graduated from Princeton University in 1988, I graduated from Hamilton College in 1990, and my brother graduated from Pomona College in 1993.  We all had positive college experiences that prepared us for our futures, and we are all grateful to our parents for making these experiences possible.  I can’t imagine what I might have done instead of spending four years at Hamilton that would have better prepared me for my future. 

Now my wife, also a Hamilton grad, and I have three children of our own and we had always assumed that we would want to send our kids to colleges like Hamilton.  But these days I’m not so sure.

MassMutual has a helpful table on their website that I used to estimate what it would cost to send my children to private colleges.  Assuming they all go to college right after high school, they will graduate from college in 2024, 2026 and 2030 at costs of $297,000, $335,000 and $425,000.  So, to send all three, we need to save $1,057,000 or take out a whole lot of loans!  Is it really worth that much?

As an employer, I don’t pay too much attention to where or if our job applicants went to college.  When someone applies for a job opening, I notice how well they write and how responsive they are.  When I interview them I try to ascertain if they have the specific skills required for the job, if they are able to learn quickly and to solve problems, and if they get excited about projects in which they are engaged.

As a parent, I am wondering if college is still the best means of preparing a young person to be the person that, as an employer, I want to hire.  Twenty-five years ago, it definitely was, but I don’t know if it still is. A lot has changed.

  1. There are a plethora of free resources available online to learn anything you want to learn.  You can take an English Composition course offered by Duke University, Calculus offered by Ohio State University, and Introduction to Philosophy offered by the University of Edinburgh.  Want to better understand the Big Bang Theory?  Check out this YouTube video.  Want to learn about Microeconomics? Khan Academy has a course.   Want to learn Spanish?  Duolingo claims to be more effective than college courses, and after spending 10 minutes a day with Duolingo for the last couple of months, I believe them.  Need to figure out how to build a doghouse? No problem.
  2. World travel has gotten easier and safer.  Think of the experiences your kids could have traveling, working or volunteering for a year in four different countries, while educating themselves via online courses.
  3. Employers care more about skills vs. degrees than they used to, and I would guess that ten years from now they will care far more about skills than degrees.  In a blog posted by the Gates Foundation, Angela Cobb states “skills-based hiring is five times more predictive of success on the job than hiring by degree alone.”

But college isn’t just about preparing people for work, right?  In an article in The Chronicle for Higher Education, Carolyn Martin, President of Amherst College, was asked what she thought college was for.  She responded:

“College is for the development of intelligence in its multiple forms. College is the opportunity for achievement, measured against high standards. College is preparation for the complexities of a world that needs rigorous analyses of its problems and synthetic approaches to solving them. College is for learning how to think clearly, write beautifully, and put quantitative skills to use in the work of discovery. College is for the cultivation of enjoyment, in forms that go beyond entertainment or distraction, stimulating our capacity to create joy for ourselves and others. College is for leave-taking, of home and of limiting assumptions, for becoming self-directed, while socially responsible.”

She can certainly write beautifully, but I can’t help but wonder whether college really provides all those opportunities more so than, for example, self-directed world travel.  Can our children find other equally valuable experiences for a whole lot less money?  Do we push them towards college simply because that’s what we did and our parents did before us?

Dave Dunn
CEO, Webucator

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