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The College Question: Given the high cost of college today, is getting a degree “worth it”?

29Aug 2006

Given the time of year – early fall, with classes starting up at many colleges and universities – it is time for the media blitz on “the college question”. Different media sources frame the question in different ways.

Foxnews.com has had a series recently on the topic, including “Is college worth the money?” and “Choosing a College: Liberal Arts vs. Professional Training”. Time magazine’s August 21, 2006 cover asks the question “Who needs Harvard?” with a subtitle of “How to find the right college for you”. And there are numerous columns in newspapers addressing the issue (“How to fund your college education”).

The problem is – the questions are framed incorrectly.

No one can genuinely answer a global question “is college worth it” for all the individuals considering the question for themselves. The questions need to be framed more specifically:

*Is going to (insert college/university name here), taking X, Y & Z courses, a good direction for you this fall, given your current financial situation and your current career goals?

There are lots of variables that need to be considered:

-the cost of the educational experience (tuition, housing, books, food)

-how the costs will be paid (you, your folks, scholarships, loans)

-the quality of education and training you will receive

-your current career direction (do you have one?)

-your (and your parents’) values regarding education

-your (and your parents’) tolerance for risk (in this case, debt)

-what would you be doing if you didn’t take classes (work? play video games?)

The reality is – the answer is going to be different for most individuals, and even the same person at different times. However, I will offer one general principle with regards to career exploration (a fancy name for the process of determining “what am I going to do with the rest of my life?”). It is easier to figure out where you are going on a trip if you’ve seen a few places, and it is really hard to turn a parked car.

Generally speaking, I think it is best for people to choose to do something (take a class, go to school for a semester) than not do something. A pattern I am seeing among young adults today is the tendency toward passivity – waiting, putting things off – rather than taking action and being proactive.

I believe it is better to learn what you don’t want to do by having a negative experience than not to learn anything because you chose to do nothing.

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