Is the cost of college tuition worth it?

By Maria Saracino Lowe
10/16/2015
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Three weeks until I make my first student loan payment — and I’m faced with a dizzying array of choices. To consolidate or not? Should I do the standard 10-year payment plan or the income-based plan? Which will ultimately cost more? And with my relatively low-paying entry-level job, how do I begin to pay off my education while navigating other freaky adult things, like Roth IRAs and 401(k)s?

The government’s new College Scorecard, which includes information on alumni earnings and loan repayment rates, is yet another factor for high school students and parents to consider while applying for college. The Scorecard also provides a blunt articulation of a view that is often implied, but not explicitly stated: college is a financial investment, and as such, should provide some sort of monetary return.

So is the cost of college worth it?

College tuition, student loans, high anxiety, and grudging acceptance

Paying for college was on my mind — and the minds of all my classmates — during our senior year of high school. My parents sat me down and we made a list of the schools where I’d been accepted, their financial aid packages, how much government aid I was able to receive via FAFSA, and the projected amount of debt I would have to take on in order to attend. I looked at the $80,000 next to my dream school and took my second choice. Even at that point I knew I wasn’t going to be making a lot of money after graduation — I had no interest in STEM, or business, or any of the other traditionally high-earning degrees. I had, and still do have, an unrealistic, idealistic belief that education is valuable in and of itself and that you should always, always do what makes you happy.

However, I was in high school when the recession hit, and I also knew that a degree did not guarantee me a job. I think that people feel now, more than ever, how hard it is to balance the inherent value of education with the very real money that you need to spend on it.

College is more than a monetary investment ... It’s four years of intensive skill-building. It’s a space to explore your interests and grow as a person.

The New York Times quoted a professor at Catholic University of America who views the fixation on college rankings as the reflection of a human impulse to try to minimize risk, in which a “gathering of numerical information acts as a kind of wish fulfillment ... If you have enough metrics and benchmarks, somehow people believe that’s going to solve a major problem. It rarely does.” This is very true. This is also very depressing. So, with all this in mind, how do you begin to plan your future around the (increasingly better, but still kind of awful) job market?

How to make the cost of college worth it

There’s no way to predict the future. Really, the only way to make a college education “worth it” is to study something you love, immerse yourself in the unique experience of being around a lot of cool, passionate people, and try to put yourself in the best possible position to be employable after graduation. Also, recognize that the people around you want you to succeed. Don’t be afraid of networking. Join student organizations and meet people with the same interests, build relationships with professors, and collaborate on cool projects. All you have to do is talk to people.

Internships are also a great way to look more employable post-graduation, as well as a way to reinforce your love for your chosen field. But they can also help you come to the realization that your idealized version of your dream job doesn’t match up with reality. And that’s OK. It’s better to find this out sooner rather than later. Not to mention, an internship can get you your professional sea legs, as well as a few months’ worth of experience right before you graduate!

The true value of college

Overall, I don’t know if I would say my college degree was “worth it” in a monetary sense, but college is more than a monetary investment. It’s four years of intensive skill-building. It’s a space to explore your interests and grow as a person, whether that be through joining clubs and student organizations, finding your academic passion, or just exploring what it means to be a young adult on your own for the first time. So, with three weeks until I make my first student loan payment, I can definitively say that I wouldn’t trade the last four years for anything. Except maybe student loan forgiveness. And a really, really nice car.

Everyone's experience is different. Review a college and let others know if you think it was worth the cost.  

About the author

Maria is a recent graduate from Lewis & Clark College. She enjoys binge-watching all movies on Netflix, traveling, and reading food blogs. Hobbies also include staring longingly at the outdoors from her cubicle.

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