College is expensive. According to the Education Data Initiative (EDI), the average in-state student attending a public four-year institution spends $25,487 for one academic year. The average annual cost of in-state tuition alone is $9,349. Out-of-state students will pay almost triple that, with tuition averaging $27,023. Going private drives up the cost even more. Traditional private university students spend on average a total of $53,217 per academic year. It’s also worth noting that the cost of college has more than doubled in the 21st century. Its annual growth rate of 6.8 percent far exceeds the historical rate of inflation.
These numbers may not have the same shock value for frum families compared to the average American. After all, yeshiva elementary and high school tuition in some parts of the country may not be far off these prices. Nevertheless, college is still a major expense that many frum families face. It’s important for parents and students to take the time to fully evaluate their options and determine the best plan given their goals and objectives for the student.
Sadly, an imprudent college decision may have devastating financial consequences. I’ve met with young couples and soon-to-be retirees whose financial lives are in shambles because of their college choices. Below are some practical considerations to discuss before picking a university.
College is an investment: Don’t let any admissions officer, friend or family member sway you with less important factors like campus life, extracurricular activities, junior year abroad options, national rankings, how many alumni are Nobel laurates, or the university’s sports team. Attending college is first and foremost a financial decision. It’s important when shelling out tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition payments that your child will be set up for financial stability after graduation. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize this and saddle themselves with an insurmountable level of debt to attend their dream school. Oftentimes this “dream” turns into a nightmare when people fail to consider the student’s Return on Investment (ROI).
It’s imperative that the student experiences a positive ROI within several years of graduation. Irrespective of whether one chooses to be an investment banker, actuary, zoologist, speech therapist or yoetzet halacha, one must have a practical game plan to pay back any school loans. Remember, this will be in addition to maintaining the cost of your lifestyle going forward. Choosing a college without having a positive ROI projection is irresponsible.
Does it make sense to go to college in the first place? In some communities, not having a college degree may make one feel like a social outcast. This is an outdated viewpoint. While college unquestionably shapes students’ minds and allows many to become more well-rounded, the reality is that college is not a sensible decision for everybody. There are many fulfilling and lucrative career paths that don’t require a college degree. Take electricians, plumbers and HVAC specialists as example. These everyday services are indispensable to society and won’t be replaced by technology any time soon. They can be pursued through trade school or apprenticeship, without requiring a college degree. Additionally, careers that leverage technology, like programming, search engine optimization, website development, and e-commerce, may require on the job training or perhaps a certificate course, but attending a four-year university may be a total waste of time and money.
Undergrad vs. Graduate school: Be sure to take into consideration whether your long-term career plans require both undergraduate and graduate school. For many 18-year-olds, planning that far in advance may be challenging. However, not every family has an infinite level of resources to spend on schooling for a decade after high school.
There are some careers where your undergraduate degree is not nearly as important as your graduate degree. The key factor for getting into some of those graduate programs is scoring well on specific entrance exams, such as the LSAT, GMAT or MCAT. This should be considered in your higher education plans. Spending a quarter million dollars on an undergraduate degree that is only a minor factor in securing a place at a top graduate program seems short-sighted. Attending a city college and spending a few thousand dollars on a good prep course may be financially more prudent.
Overlooked factor: One aspect of choosing a college that is not always considered is the type of social network you will develop from attending a particular university. Over time, many of the courses and professors will be forgotten, but your network of friends may stay with you for life. It may be worth paying a premium for that benefit.
Professionally, whether you start a business, work on Wall Street, practice law, or become a Rav, the connections made at the university level may take your career to a whole new level. Personally, who your child surrounds themselves with is especially important for frum families who prioritize living in a Torah environment. Some people may consider this social aspect of college to be fluffy and less substantive than national rankings. However, in practice, this is one of the top criteria for every college bound senior. It can ultimately shape the way they live the rest of their life.
In my next article, I will discuss some financial strategies and considerations to help families pay for college education.