Figuring out the real cost of college

Putting the price of education into perspective

Before I begin, I would like to point out that education should never be seen as a purely financial investment. The nature, and benefits, of education go far beyond the ability to make more money. Education changes who a person is, how they understand and figure out the world, and so much more. But even from a purely financial perspective, people (parents especially) constantly misunderstand the actual value of various forms of education. They consistently overvalue the typical college education, underestimate its true financial cost, all the while devaluing all other forms of education.

Let’s start with the typical college education, represented by the average UC.

The student pays more than 30,000 a year in tuition and boarding, plus any further costs such as books and transportation. Only about half of students manage to graduate in four years, and still only 80 percent graduate in six. Realistically, the typical student spends 150,000 to 180,000 for his undergraduate education, plus interest due to loans. Of course, the better the school, the more likely he is to graduate on time (in four years). You can compare the four-year graduation rate between the average California State University (23%) and UC Berkeley (87%), for example – a difference of nearly 65%!

In this context, we come to our first realization. Going to a lower-tier university will cost more money over time than going to a higher-tier university. The majority of students at lower-tier schools take nearly two more years than typical students at higher-tier schools. An entire 41% of CSU students, for example, take more than 6 years to graduate! So even putting aside the benefits of attending a higher ranked college or university in terms of education quality, a student attending a lower-ranked school will be deeper in debt than had he achieved better in high school and subsequently entered a higher-ranked school.

Why do students at lower-ranked universities take longer to graduate? There are two main reasons. One, they themselves tend to fail more classes, due to their lack of starting academic ability. Two, these colleges are financially-motivated and will accept as many students as possible to increase their income, even as they know there is not enough room each year for required courses (not to mention, not enough room in their dorms).

Of course, the story doesn’t end there. With a degree from a lower-ranking university, graduates will be less likely to obtain a suitable job coming out of graduation. The reputation of the school, unfortunately, matters more than the graduates’ actual ability. It’s not right, but it’s reality.
What’s worse is when a student realizes she doesn’t have the academic ability to finish the major that she originally was going for. Many students enter into a school thinking that they will obtain, for example, an engineering degree. But after realizing they don’t have what it takes to finish the required courses, they switch to a less financially-reliable degree like design, nutrition, or marketing. It would have been far better for these students to avoid the cost of college education in the first place and simply entered into a trade right after high school.

Let’s move onto discuss the typical high school and its role in under-preparing students for college.

The situations for public high schools and private high schools differ, so let’s take the public school situation first.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s talk about two types of public high schools: “good” public schools (typically in wealthy areas) and “poor” public schools (aka the “inner city” school).

Poor public schools are easy to understand. Instructors teach to the average student of their class, because they are afraid that the rest of the class will fall behind if they don’t. Many of these students would be lucky to graduate high school, so the instructor is not at all concerned with developing the necessary academic skills or scholastic ability needed for college success. Grades are easy to get, and so the student’s GPA will be inaccurately high, but he will not do well on the SAT (especially EBRW) because he has not been pushed far enough. Even if affirmative action benefits him, he will be hopelessly behind among his peers in college.

Good public schools are a different story. Some parents buy homes in school districts with reputable public schools in order to send their children to these supposedly better schools. But it’s a mistake to believe that by simply sending one’s child to a good public school, he will become a better student. For the most part, this is not true. Students at these high schools tend to do better on SATs and obtain better college acceptances not because the teaching is necessarily better, but because of who their parents are. Their parents push them to do better, hire full-time tutors and other professional educators with real talent to actually educate them, and set them up for unique extra-curricular activities.

These students would have scored highly on the SAT no matter what high school they would have attended, because their parents are directing the education of their children – not the high school.

What about private high schools? Private high schools are similar to their public school counterparts, but with a screening process. They choose the best that they can get. In other words, students are in the same situation as above with the good public high schools. Many students are already set to succeed, because the school has already decided that these students come from families that push them to do better, hire personal tutors and other professional educators with the talent to educate them, set them up for unique extra-curricular activities, and have already demonstrated great academic potential – even before the first day of classes.

Here’s the problem. The system of high school instruction, instructing thirty students at a time, is no way to actually develop academic ability. Yet that same academic ability is indispensable for getting into a good university, and furthermore, succeeding in it.

What’s a more rational way to invest into your child’s education? Find a professional teacher who can work closely with your child to develop his academic abilities while your child is early in high school. This person should have years of experience (preferably a decade), both full-time and long-term dedication (in other words, don’t hire the Stanford student who is doing this for forty bucks an hour in order to fund her vacation in Europe), an authentic teaching philosophy, and will work with your child one-on-one, or at most in a small group not exceeding three other students. This professional teacher will help your child develop the academic skills he needs to succeed in college, including the ability to reading college-level texts, think abstractly, and construct logical arguments.

If you’re going to spend 200,000 on college, make sure it’s 1) a good college and 2) your child can do well in it. The best way to do this is by getting him the help he needs while he is in high school. Otherwise, his college education will end up costing more, or worse, be financially worthless to him.

Think about it this way. Wouldn’t it be far better to spend 10,000 on ensuring your child has the academic skills to succeed, before wasting beyond 200,000 for a potentially worthless degree?