Why college is worth the cost for my family

Yes, it's expensive, but I'm more focused on the long-term value.

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Key takeaways

  • College offers teens a supportive space to flourish in.
  • Because adults are likely to change jobs many times, a broad knowledge base can serve workers well.
  • The price is high, but the salary payoff can be, too, in the long run.

My 6-year-old daughter's current ambitions comprise a dizzying punch list of professions: mom, nurse, scientist, gymnast, and wild-animal trainer. And that's just from one morning.

Her list changes often, sometimes with her mood and sometimes because of the books she's reading. My job as her dad is to encourage all her wildest dreams—while helping her learn the practical steps necessary to achieve them.

Whatever paths she takes, it's reasonable to assume that at least some of her aspirations are likely to require a bachelor's degree at a minimum. That's why my wife and I are planning to encourage her to complete a traditional 4-year college degree. We believe it's worth the investment.

We think college will give her the best footing for multiple careers, provide a developmentally appropriate training ground for adulthood, and expose her to a broad array of ideas and viewpoints.

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A degree is insurance for the future

A recent survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that late-stage baby boomers (born 1957 to 1964) held an average of 12.4 jobs from ages 18 to 54.1 And that's the "loyal to my job" generation. (By contrast, older millennials, born 1980 to 1984, have held an average of 8.6 jobs, just from ages 18 to 34.)2

Generation Alpha, born in the 2010s, will be even more intimate with job-hopping, whether by necessity (to outpace automation and layoffs) or choice (to pursue side gigs and meaningful work).

Exposure to a broad array of topics—science, math, humanities, etc.—and a lifelong commitment to learning are hallmarks of a college education. This mosaic-style approach will be increasingly useful to my daughter and her generation. Adaptability is powerful.

Another critical skill for an uncertain future is the discipline to envision and complete an elaborate assignment. Colleges can help students learn the skills necessary to finish a months-long thesis or research paper. Committing to an ambitious goal and taking steps each day to see it through provide a sense of pride and confidence essential for entrepreneurial pursuits.

Alternatives to the college experience, such as certification programs and vocational schools, target specific skills in a much shorter time frame. While developing a marketable skill set is important, the broadness of a college education is more likely to generate longer-term marketability and anti-fragility, which can help people thrive in an ever-changing future.

Teenage brains need extra time to fully develop

Here's an uncomfortable truth: The typical 18-year-old's brain isn't well suited for total independence. In fact, the prefrontal cortex, which reins in impulsive behaviors to facilitate longer-term goal planning, isn't yet fully developed by the late teens. Likewise, the brain's reward system, which seeks novelty and thrills through the unknown, doesn't fully normalize until around age 25.3

It's no coincidence that college is generally positioned immediately after high school. Colleges provide a controlled environment for the transition to adulthood. The semi-structured, lightly chaperoned environment (think: dorm monitors and academic advisors) is a good match for a typical teen's development.

It's true that some late-stage teenagers are fully ready to take on these adult responsibilities. (Today's teens are more adept at personal branding, passive income, content creation, and multimedia creative expression than most established creative directors.) But other teens need extra time and guidance to fully blossom.

As an incubator for independence, colleges provide scaffolding for students to embrace adult responsibilities—such as punctuality, personal responsibility, and time management—with developmentally appropriate support along the way. And you don't have to be a full-time student living in a dorm to get these benefits. Students who live off campus, even with their parents, and students who work part or full time while enrolled can still benefit from this additional development.

College is a sandbox (without the plastic shovels)

Colleges provide students with the time and space to flourish as a person. It's a fertile landscape for forming lasting relationships and thinking deeply about one's values.

A college student who takes 5 classes per semester across 4 years may learn from about 40 different teachers. That's 40 opportunities to interact meaningfully with adults who aren't their parents. In addition to easy access to mentors, college gives students time to explore potential careers. Researching industries by talking with professors can help a student understand what's expected at the entry level and how to sustain a long-term career.

By providing a sandbox in which to experiment and explore various ideas in a comfortable, time-bound setting, colleges allow students to reflect on what they want from life and who they want to be.

The classroom experience also encourages real-time debate with clashing viewpoints. Students learn to articulate their own opinions, see how well those opinions hold up under scrutiny, and (in some cases) have their minds changed by listening to others' opinions.

This, of course, can happen anywhere—you don't need a lecture hall to find someone who disagrees with you. (And, as Will Hunting points out, you can unlock a whole lot of knowledge for $1.50 in late fees at the public library.) However, throughout the course of a 4-year college experience, the constant exposure to conflicting viewpoints can create open-minded learners that can continually scrutinize their own biases and beliefs.

The ROI of U-N-I

If a college degree is truly an investment, then what's the bottom line? For starters, a college degree is nearly certain to remain a requirement in fields such as law, medicine, and education. Beyond providing the admission ticket to graduate studies, a bachelor's degree, on average, trends with higher lifetime earnings.

In fact, women with bachelor's degrees earn $630,000 more in median lifetime earnings than women with high school diplomas.4 So while the up-front cost of college is significant, there are proven gains.

When the tuition bills arrive, however, it can be a crash course in finance 101. But that's also an opportunity to pick up valuable lessons about saving, spending, and taking on responsible debt. If you start the conversation early enough, you can include the student in the decision-making process, encouraging them to research scholarships and financial aid.

Let's point out the elephant in the room: college's astronomical cost. It's a vastly different world now from when my wife and I graduated in the mid-2000s. And the rising tuition costs are a cause for alarm.

Like most people who don't own a private island, we can't offer our daughter a blank check. Instead, we'll be guiding her toward a financially feasible option: some combination of in-state tuition, online learning for core classes, and AP classes in high school. And when she's old enough, we plan to talk about living on a budget and paying back any loans she needs to take out.

I'm optimistic and open-minded about the future. Old jobs will be automated. New jobs, with responsibilities we can't even imagine today, will be the norm when my daughter comes of age. And as she matures, she may change her mind, too, about what she wants to do with her life. But with a college degree under her belt, she'll have the option to dream as high as she can imagine.


Want to see the other side of this coin? Here's why 1 mom isn't pushing college on her kids.

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