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Colleges Worth the Investment????

September 10, 2010 · 74 comments

in Commentary, Personal Finance

Now that my oldest child is 16, I find that I am paying extra attention to college-related articles.

So, when I was perusing the Yahoo Finance website and saw the article ‘Colleges Worth the Investment‘ I thought “I better read this!”.

I should have known better…

The article was written based on data from Payscale.com.  This website keeps track of salaries across all industries, and Payscale computed what they call Return on Investment (ROI) for a college education.  This computation is based on expected median income 30 years from now (return), compared with the cost of college expenses (investment).

The Top 10 colleges, based on ROI, are profiled in the article.  Each school in the top 10 is a private institution, with the cheapest school (California Institute of Technology) costing $181,000 for four years of education.  (By the way, graduates from that school can expect to make more than 1.6 million dollars a year, 30 years from now.)   According to the article, students will enjoy an annual ROI of 12.6 percent on their education over those 30 years.

I wonder, how in the world can anyone reasonably predict what salaries will be in 30 years?  Especially with how our economy is changing and salaries are being reduced instead of increased.

In addition, the article fails to recognize that very few people can afford to spend $45,000 in tuition every year.  I would assume that many of these kids would need to take out student loans.  However, I did not see any accommodation for the impact of student loans on this ROI computation.  To me, that is a glaring error.  Sure, a high starting salary is great.  But if you have to pay a large sum of money every month to pay for student loans, what is the real advantage?  Plus, there are plenty of kids graduating from colleges all over the nation that are struggling to find a job.  Imagine being unemployed and having a large amount of debt.  No thanks.

These articles do nothing but anger me.   First of all, most students won’t even have the grades/test scores to qualify for these schools.  Second, most families cannot afford these schools.  If I had that kind of money laying around that I could use toward college education, and my child qualified for admission, the last thing I would be doing is reading some internet article to decide which Ivy League school to send my child to.  I would probably be consulting my wealthy parents and wealthy friends to see what connections could hook my child up best!  Making a decision based on an ROI that is derived from some arbitrary salary number way in the future is just ludicrous.

Sometimes I think people are just trying to fill up the internet with inane articles.  Yes, I am sure you could say that is exactly what I am doing, but at least I get to vent and share all my great theories.  I call it therapy.  The people that write these other articles are probably actually getting paid for it.  Maybe I need to get my resume together!  I can make up numbers too…

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{ 68 comments… read them below or add one }

Nicole September 10, 2010 at 8:26 am

When that article came out, I looked through Payscale’s data. They don’t actually have very many data points and as far as I can tell, the information is voluntary and selected. So I don’t actually believe their raw data.

Although MIT has crappy financial aid, Caltech was more affordable than UIUC for one of my friends. Harvard will pay full tuition for parents who make under, it used to be 50K, but I believe that they have raised that number. If you can get into a private school with a large endowment, it may end up being cheaper than the local state school. This is especially true if you are a great student, or an athlete, or have some other skill that the school wants. Many schools now have financial aid calculators that you can use to estimate the actual parental contribution based on your information, and you can decide whether its worth applying based on that information. By the time our kid is in school, we’re probably (hopefully going to make enough money to) going to have to pay full tuition wherever the kid goes, but for lower income folks financial aid can make private schools cheaper.

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Kris September 10, 2010 at 10:04 am

Nicole – I agree. The whole basis of the article seemed flawed from the start.

I do know that if you qualify, that private schools can cost about the same as public schools. However, for those outside the range qualifying for need, it can be a tough road.

We will probably apply to a range of schools for my son and see what happens…

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Financial Samurai September 10, 2010 at 9:55 am

First of all, happy belated birthday!

2nd of all, good luck with college tuition! I’m a big fan of great public schools if you have any. Berkeley, UCLA, UCSD are three good ones here in California!

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Kris September 10, 2010 at 10:03 am

Thanks Samurai!

University of Michigan is the top public university in our area, and it is an excellent school. However, I know some people really thrive in a smaller environment, and that usually means spending a lot of money, unfortunately.

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Lola September 10, 2010 at 11:01 am

I would say that the student should really do the math as to how much to invest in college. For an ambitious student who wants to get into a high-powered, high-paying career with an undergrad degree, especially in finance or business or government, then an Ivy League or other “prestige” name (Duke, Stanford, NYU, Vanderbilt, etc.) is probably the best way to go, even if it means going into debt. And look at the US Presidents in the past 25 years – they all went to an Ivy League school as some point. One of the most interesting non-fiction books I read about going to college was Ross Douthat’s “Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class.” The MOST helpful non-fiction book I read about going to college was “Paying for College Without Going Broke.”

But again, an ambitious student can also do really well with a degree from a “regular” school, too. It sounds like your kids all play soccer at a high level, so that’s definitely something they may want to explore. Our experience was that even Div. III schools, which don’t offer scholarships for sports, were willing to find some grants for good students who wanted to play a sport (especially a student with good grades and decent standardized test scores).

Not to stress your high school junior, but I definitely recommend some sort of SAT practice in the next month before the PSAT, if your child hasn’t done so already, and then continue to work on honing skills for the SAT/ACT.

So there’s got to be a certain amount of financial and future reckoning/reality in choosing a college, but I hope as your family enters into the whole process that your student can also keep the sense that college is an exciting new step in life-long learning and an important time of personal growth. A lot of articles about college anymore (well, maybe about all of education!) are written in terms of “show me the money,” and while that’s part of the reality, you would also hope that we could still impart how wonderful it is to learn new things or look at things in a new way. It was certainly that way for me, and I’m happy it also turned out that way for my kids.

Good luck! (and happy belated birthday – sounds like you had a nice week)

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Kris September 10, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Lola – I had a fantastic week, thank you!

I went to a public university, and everyone I know that graduated from there has done very well. However, I don’t really know many people that went to Ivy Leagues schools to compare with. I think a lot has to do with the individual, and quite honestly, connections do not hurt either.

My son has been studying for the PSAT, and he will transition over to studying for the SAT once the PSAT is done. Schools are so much more competitive than they were when I was applying to colleges. It seems like you have to be able to do it all to get into a first rate school, public or private.

Thanks for reading, and for the thought-provoking comment.

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Joe Plemon September 10, 2010 at 11:49 am

I haven’t read the article, but reading your post makes me wonder what the ROI for an affordable state school would be. I, like Sam, am a big supporter of public schools and know many who have done quite well with a public school degree.

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Kris September 10, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Joe, I couldn’t agree more with you. However, I think their ROI is flawed from the start because the numbers are somewhat arbitrary. I know many, many people that were very successful attending public universities. I think it is more about the person you are than the school you attended.

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WaterBishop September 10, 2010 at 12:30 pm

State school all the way.
I don’t know anyone who went to private school who is doing better than my state school counterparts.
Not everyone graduating from private school is going to want to move to high paying(and high cost of living) cities. Just because you could make make a million a year with that degree does not mean you will. Especially with that $200,000 philosophy major with a ceramics minor. 😉
Most student loan repayment plans are for 10 years. The monthly payments for nearly $200,000 over 10 years would be killer even on a six figure salary.

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Kris September 10, 2010 at 2:02 pm

Waterbishop – I totally agree with you. You mention an interesting concept in that many of these graduates from these private colleges may be also living in a high cost of living city, that would demand a higher salary. I can live a lot better in Michigan off 100k than I can in California/NY/Boston.

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The Biz of Life September 10, 2010 at 12:34 pm

The best deal financially has always been to go to a community college for two years, then transfer to best in-state public university where you live. If you happen to be lucky enough to reside in Virginia or North Carolina, you could attend a world class university like UVA, UNC, NC State, William & Mary, or VT.

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Kris September 10, 2010 at 2:04 pm

Biz – I agree that the community college is the cheapest first step for college. However many want that ‘living away from home’ experience. Some students can handle it, others cannot.

We live in Michigan, which also has some excellent public universities.

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Money Reasons September 10, 2010 at 2:10 pm

You are spot on!

Based on projections 10 years ago, we all should have at least double the amount of money that we have in our investment than we do now… They truly are financial fortune tellers (totally guessing)…

Evan @ “My Journey to Millions” believes that there is a college cost bubble (and I hope he’s right)! Nobody know, but the cost increases for college is crazy… and as you claim, the trend in employment isn’t looking as promising as it use to be…

Good rant, I’m sitting across the boat nodding my head at you in total agreement! 😉

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Kris September 11, 2010 at 6:03 pm

Money Reasons – exactly right, financial projections are useless in my opinion right now. I think our economy is in transition, and who knows what is next.

I hope that college cost bubble bursts before my son goes to college in 2 years!

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Money Reasons September 12, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Yeah, I hope it pops too! Pretty soon, 1 year of college will cost more than the total cost of my house (4 years of college at a high end private school already does…)

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Vitaeus September 10, 2010 at 7:38 pm

simple, offer to help the kid go to a 2 year school nearby and he can work to pay for an apartment if he wants. College is a very good way to get so far into debt you never get out. Oh and student loans are not dischargable in a bankruptcy, you get to pay them off or else expect to lose any other government money you may ever qualify for.

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Kris September 11, 2010 at 6:06 pm

Vitaeus – you are right, renting an apartment and going to a local college is a viable option, and I am sure the apartment is probably cheaper than college housing.

I paid for college myself, and I struggled to repay all those student loans for many years. I went to a public university, I cannot imagine how difficult it would have been if I had gone to a private school.

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Roshawn @ Watson Inc September 12, 2010 at 8:54 pm

Timely topic, I just writing about this very topic yesterday. It is an interesting dance. There really are some small schools that help particular students thrive (typically at a high financial costs) whereas there are several high-quality state schools where students go on to launch brilliant careers.

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