Should you encourage your kids to attend college?

College is an experience that most parents encourage their kids to consider. It is a means to advance in society, get a good job, and become financially stable.  Likewise, my parents fortunately emphasized college as a necessity in life—you need to get into a good college in order to succeed in life. Period.

But should college be an option for everyone?

As a physician, it would be hypocritical for me to even suggest that kids should consider bypassing college completely.  I certainly encourage students whom I mentor to get the best grades possible and challenge themselves in any way they can.  If college is a possibility, I encourage them to go for it.  The problem is that many people end up in careers that don’t necessarily require a college degree. You might have “wasted” several years of your life in college for naught.

College is not necessarily free.

The problem with implicitly mandating college is that someone has to pay for it.  You. Uncle Sam. Your parents or family. Everyone.

It seems like most students become involved with student loans at some point in their lives.  I certainly was.  I am sick of hearing about student loans.  They’ve been a necessary burden for many of my colleagues, and some of my colleagues are still repaying their medical school loans from a decade ago.  College is no different.  Last I checked, tuition at Stanford University in 2016 was around $45,000 a year.  Room and board will tack on another $14,000.  Big numbers add up quickly.

I view colleges in the same light as I do with medical school.  There is a trade-off between cost and perceived quality.  Top-tier schools are difficult to become admitted into. Many of them are also expensive.  Many parents whose kids are admitted into a top-tier school will likely make sacrifices for their kids to attend.  Even if your daughter’s art history degree from Yale cost you $260,000 and delayed retirement, it might still be worth it to you.  Your kid will have gone to one of the top Ivy-league schools in the country.  A top college will likely have high cost, high prestige, and likely high quality education.

The problem with an expensive degree is exacerbated if neither you nor your child gets anything out of it.  An art history degree from a no-name private college may still cost you $260,000 after all is done.  As a parent, you’ve go no bragging rights for your child. If your child doesn’t find a decent job, she is also stuck without a means to build her own financial future.  You don’t want colleges with high cost, low prestige, and low-quality education.  Everyone loses.

College does not guarantee a secure financial future.

A college diploma certainly doesn’t guarantee you a means to generate income, but your experiences in college can certainly create opportunities for you to acquire a job.  Fortunately for our society, the unemployment rate for college graduates over age 24 is lower than 5 percent (perhaps 2-3%).  By going to college in the U.S., you’ve putting yourself in a good position to become employed.  Not bad, but someone should compare income rate to the cost of obtaining the education. I suspect that it is lower than one would expect.  Sure, going to college may help you get a job but it still might not be enough to pay your bills.  Someone needs to solve that conundrum.

You’ve still got to play your cards right even if you go to a good college.

You life still isn’t set if you go to a good college even at a good price.  Not everyone is suited to learn in a classroom.  Not everyone will be able to take advantage of the social interactions in college.  Some kids who opt to live at home during college in order to same money may even miss out on some of the experiences they would have otherwise gleaned from living in a college campus.  There are many variables at stake. No one will be able to offer you or your child a clear strategy to win in school.  That’s what makes life so unpredictable.

Who should actually go to college?

If your kids want to enter professions that require college degrees, they don’t have much of a choice.  In actuality, if you attended professional school there is a strong likelihood that your kids will end up going to college.  Most parents who went to college will at least encourage their children to go to college.  Unfortunately, not every child whose parents went to college will actually benefit from a college degree.  That’s a fact.

Better to burn money on a less expensive education if you’ve really got to burn it.

The problem is that no reasonable parent would actually discourage her kids from attending college, no matter how poorly suited the kids are for the classroom. In these cases, you just have to cut your losses. Lay out the facts, offer options for your child, and what you would be able to contribute to their education. For instance, if your child got into NYU and has her mind set on attending (even though your parental instinct tells you that it’s a six-figure mistake), make it clear what you can contribute to their education.  Give them the freedom to make their life choices.  You might be pleasantly surprised.

What are your thoughts on college?

(Photo courtesy of Flickr)

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  • High Income Parents

    Nice article. This is one of the most difficult topics in my mind. Especially for parents, do we save for college for our kids? What if they don’t use it? Should we help them start a business with the college money we set aside instead? Is a good Income or prestige of attending an Ivy League school more important? It’s really hard to give advice in this area and being flexible is a must in my opinion.
    With my kids we are basically making borrowing for school akin to borrowing a needle from a drug addict. That will mean some sacrifices potentially in prestige of the school attended but that’s our decision and we hope it’s the best one.
    Aside from that we are educating our kids about the benefits of a degree but also the pitfalls associated with one and then helping them to make the best decision they can. We will see how it turns out.

    Tom @ HIP

    • Smart Money MD

      Thanks for stopping by!

      How old are your kids? I have a coworker who has one kid in private high school ($23k/yr tuition) and the other in private college ($40k+ tuition only). He’s basically working to put them through school. Not too sure about return on investment, but the agreement that they have is that as long as the kids get good grades in school, the parents will still pay. That’s still a tricky proposition since good grades aren’t necessarily going to translate into an adequately high paying job afterward.

      • High Income Parents

        My kids (5 of them) are 6, 9, 11, 13 and 15 years old. That is a tough call as well on working to put kids through college. I enjoy my work so if it was the difference in my kids going to a dream school and I had to work a little longer, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. At the same time, if physical or mental health ever became an issue, I might not be so willing to work the extra years. Thankfully everything is good so far. We decided to home school partly because of that expense. We would be shelling out $100K plus a year to put 5 through private school and then adding college on top of that would be pretty much undoable for us.

        Tom @ HIP

        • Smart Money MD

          Wow! Homeschooling is probably a good call with a handful of little ones! Depending on the cost of living in your area, you might be able to swing an unofficial daycare out of it as well. Not sure how liability works if you end up taking care of other kids.