To get this out of the way, I loved college.
I had a ball in college. I took interesting classes. I made a lot of friends. I met my wife at college. My present life would SUCK if I hadn’t gone to college.
However, now that I’m a parent, I am becoming less and less convinced that college is a MUST for my daughter.
Why? Because of one simple word: DEBT.
In the olden days, a kid could go to college and their parents could afford to pay for it. Or, if the parents couldn’t, the kid could hold down a job while taking classes to cover their tuition costs. It might take a little longer to graduate, but it wasn’t impossible. Sure, medical students might need to take out a loan for their expensive training, but they were going into a very lucrative profession that would easily enable them to pay back their loans one day.
We don’t live in that world anymore.
According to a recent report in the Boston Globe, in the 2014-15 school year, the average annual “sticker price” for four years at public college in the United States was $22,093. The average price for four years at a private college was $40,656.
Those are just averages. I know people, myself included, who paid WAY more for a four-year college education, and most of us didn’t become doctors.
Going into massive, massive debt has somehow become the norm for so many students going into higher education these days and, as someone who’s been through that experience, I can tell you — I’m not sure that it’s worth it.
And this is coming from someone who has worked in publishing and education for his entire professional life. I love knowledge. I love learning. I love learning for learning’s sake. But, in retrospect, when I was making my college choice, I really wish someone had really sat me down and explained the all-encompassing, soul-crushing weight of going out into the real world for the first time with TENS OF THOUSANDS of dollars in debt holding me down.
It was, and has been, awful.
Debt follows you around like a felony conviction, constantly coloring how you have to interact with the world around you. It fills you with anxiety. It makes you take jobs that you ordinarily would NEVER consider, because you can’t deal with the constant phone calls from Sallie Mae any more. It makes you spend your twenties (and sometimes your thirties and forties) constantly throwing money into this hole you left behind you, rather than letting you look ahead and actually invest in your own future.
I know so many former college classmates who found themselves buying a house or finally starting a family much, MUCH later in life than they EVER expected, simply because of the life-altering financial hangovers from their college years.
This experience is made worse by constant interactions with people from previous generations who, whenever you bring up college debt, regale you with stories about how they paid off their tuition bills by working part-time at a diner. “Oh, just cut back a little,” they say, having NO idea about the breadth and width of modern college debt. “Start a change jar and you’ll have it paid off in no time.”
No, you won’t — at least, not if you’ve attended college since the 1990s. It is a much, much different level of debt than any prior generation has had to contend with, when it comes to higher education, and the mental and physical weight of that debt HAS to be a factor when you’re thinking about attending college these days.
So I’m not saying “I don’t want my daughter to go to college.”
I think she’d love college. I think she’d thrive there.
What I am saying is — I’m not sure that subjecting my daughter to the PRICE of college, the emotional and financial price, is worth it.
Ultimately, that will be her decision, but, when the time comes, I know that I am going to have some very, very frank discussions with her about debt and what it can do to you — discussions that I wish someone had initiated with me when I was in high school — before she makes up her mind.
Because, while education is undeniably a powerful and liberating force, DEBT is the exact opposite. It is oppressive, limiting, constraining. It can choke the life out of you, if you’re not careful.
In a vacuum, in a reality devoid of money and anxiety, college is absolutely worth it. Those four years can shape your life in ways you’d never imagine. But, in the real world, when you balance the benefits of college against the negatives of debt, the value proposition shrinks dramatically and you truly have to weigh the impact — all the impacts — of your decision on the next 20 years of your life.
I WANT college to be worth it for my daughter. But, when the time comes, if she’s forced to go into debt for an education that I don’t think will enable her to pay off that debt any time in the near future, I’m not going to be quiet about it.
I will advocate for her future life, I will speak up for the next few decades she hasn’t experienced yet, and I will challenge her to really look at the cost, the TRUE cost, of her decision.
I’m not saying that I want her to be uneducated. I revere education, but there are so many other ways to embrace education these days — online learning, work experience, apprenticeships — and I want her to know that going into higher education debt is NOT her only option.
Because we have to break the debt cycle sometime, right? And if my kid has to opt out of four years in a dorm to make that happen, THAT might be worth it.More On